V. R. Raghunath: HIL, a good opportunity for youngsters

Playing with and against international players (in the HIL) has helped many an Indian junior shed his diffidence, says hockey defender V. R. Raghunath.

V.R. Raghunath (centre) with Indian hockey team captain Sardar Singh (left)and S.V. Sunil during the National camp at the SAI South Centre in Bengaluru on November 4, 2015. Such camps help iron out many faults.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Raghunath celebrates after scoring against China during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. Steadily, Raghunath is developing into an all-round defender.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Nick Wilson (yellow) of Ranchi Rays and Harmanpreet Singh of Dabang Mumbai in action in the Hockey India League in Mumbai on January 24, 2015. Juniors like Harmanpreet are now more confident of facing international opposition.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

From the backbencher in a team of stars to being one of the biggest names in Indian hockey, Vokkaliga Ramachandra Raghunath has come a long way since his international debut in 2005. Ahead of the fourth edition of the Hockey India League in an Olympic year, the 27-year old drag-flicker and defender spoke about the HIL and his team UP Wizards, India at Rio and his own expectations on the field.

Question: The HIL comes after a long-overdue break for the team. How’s it shaping up?

Answer: It’s going good. We have had about four days of practice now, but not heavy training. We have taken it slow for the first few days, both to let the players to warm up and also allow the foreign players to get used to the Indian conditions. Everyone’s here except for Jamie Dwyer and it is a new set of players for me (he was among the five players retained by the franchise from the previous editions). There are (Gonzalo) Peillat and (Tobias) Hauke so it will be important to see how quickly and well we get together and collaborate with each other on and off the field.

For us, the first week is the most important when we will be playing four games, so we need to take away some points early on. The team that gets going together early will have a much better chance of making it to the semi-finals.

How important will this edition of HIL be in terms of preparing for the Olympics?

It will be a good learning ground. The only other major event for the teams this year will be the Champions Trophy, but by then most squads and plans would have been finalised so this will be the last opportunity for players to impress and coaches to take note of performances.

Some of the foreign players here, who are mainstays of their respective national teams, we haven’t known individually, but they can impact a team’s performance. So this is a good chance for our boys to work them out personally. We can assess individual players and see what they are best at and observe them closely, which we cannot do during international matches. Yes, they can also see us, but then there are no secrets in international sports now anyway, it’s all about performance.

Also, we have some very good, experienced international players coming who can share their experiences. It is a learning process. For me, personally, it will be nice to interact with Dwyer or Hauke, who have been there at the very top of the world and won world medals and learn how they take care of their bodies in tournaments and handle big match pressure.

Does all this learning help in overcoming the fear factor among Indian players, especially the juniors?

Yes, 100 percent it does. That is one of the biggest points here — if someone has a fear factor against certain players or teams, that will go away in this tournament. If you take a Varun Kumar or a Harmanpreet Singh, who are some of our best junior players coming up, you see that the fear factor is gone. When they play with other big names like a Mark Knowles or a Florian Fuchs, they do not feel any less confident than the rest of the players, they feel there is nothing to fear in them anymore and that helps them perform whether in juniors or seniors. I think all this experience will only add up for our juniors, it is a good opportunity for them to learn a lot and use it in future tournaments

It will also help us at Rio because in every edition of the HIL we are trying and learning new things and you can see the way the team has improved in the last few years. With new foreign players coming in this time and new combinations in the teams, it will only help us get better ahead of Rio Olympics.

If we go back to the Hockey World League Finals in Raipur, how has that bronze medal helped the team?

See, the Australia series before that and the HWL itself were two important events for us as a team to show and perform what we can do, and we did a good job in both. Yes, the results could have been different, but we have shown that we are close to the big teams in the world and we can beat anyone on a given day and trouble them.

There are certain areas that we have to work on and we should do it in these eight months. The good thing is that we know what our next few steps should be and we are taking them. We are getting closer and it’s also a signal for other teams that we would not be going only for participation, but be serious competition for the top sides. The bronze medal has made the boys mentally confident of competition in this arena and the only thing now is for us to go out and perform.

Coach Roelant Oltmans has spoken about the team’s unpredictability. Your take on that?

I think each player’s individual consistency level should be the same as the other 15 to 17 in the side. I agree that the graph has been going up and down and we need to hold the consistency levels at a certain level for all the players for the entire tournament. It is something we should be able to work out in the coming 7 to 8 months. We know where the bar is set and we will work towards it.

Where is Raghunath’s own bar set? You have a tendency to lose your temper at crucial moments, are you working on that as well?

Personally, I am working on my positions across the full defence. The coach wants every player to be able to fit into at least 3 to 4 positions so I am working on playing at the right, left or centre in the defence. It is important that a player can be used at any position and since only 16 will be going to Rio, there is no fixed position for anyone any more.

As for the temper part, yes. I got two cards in the last tournament at crucial moments and I know I should be controlling my temper, especially when I have already received warnings. Seriously, I am working on it and yes, I am trying to stay calm during a match.

There is nothing specific I am trying to do because this is not something that is part of my nature. It’s more about controlling emotions during a game and concentrating on the bigger target for the team and that is exactly what I am trying to do. I know I need to control my emotions and not get into too much of an attack mode, I am working on that.

Do you see the new scoring rules in the HIL being replicated at the international level? Does it add to the pressure on you as a defender?

I don’t know about the FIH, let’s see how it works here in the HIL first. If it is tried out at the international level, every time there will be big scores coming up, so we can’t say anything about it now.

Personally, I don’t think it will be fair for every tournament at the international level to use this rule. It is good at the HIL for fun and to add to the excitement and get high-scoring games. In fact, I am looking forward to the first week of the competition and see what kind of scorelines we get because the points difference will keep changing with every match, so let’s see.

As for pressure, I don’t think there will be any extra pressure. I think you should know which minute you are playing, which part of the game you are playing. In fact, it’s good for our forwards and if they score two goals, we will have four to defend so it might actually get easier for us!

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