Harendra Singh: Zero margin of error in a quarterfinal

The quarterfinals decide whether you get a medal or bow out of the race, and if we go past that, India wouldn’t look back, says national coach Harendra Singh in an interview ahead of the hockey World Cup.

With HIL, confidence has increased both for national and non-national players, says Harendra Singh.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

According to coach Harendra Singh, the national team’s performance in its first game at the World Cup will give an indicator of its chances in Bhubaneswar — for everyone, the players, the fans, the media. But for him, the biggest match will be in the quarterfinals. “That game decides whether you get a medal or bow out of the race. There is zero margin of error in a quarterfinal. If we go past that, India wouldn’t look back,” said Singh. In an interview ahead of the World Cup, he also spoke about how Australia’s domination has changed the game, player education and how the Hockey India League has improved the players’ confidence.

The Asian Champions Trophy was the final competitive outing for the national team before the World Cup. What lessons have the team and staff learnt?

I wouldn’t say lessons because a lot of things we knew. What we worked on was rectifying what went wrong at Asian Games. Most important was possession, because unless you keep possession, you cannot score. Also, the opposition has to expend energy to first snatch the ball and then try and build moves; that can lead to errors.

We also worked on passing and receiving options. We always try in training that every player should have a minimum of three options to play a ball and also play in a way that his teammate has three options to play further. Decision-making is something we are working on and it is up to the individual to decide which option to execute. It may sometimes go wrong, but that is always a work in progress.

The competition in Oman was almost the same as at the Asian Games and many of the teams will be there at the World Cup. In that sense, how much clarity is there in terms of structure, planning and areas of concern?

Structure-wise we are very confident and comfortable because some progress is possible only if you have a good structure — circle entries, shots at goal, penalty corners, etc. And, if those numbers are rising, as we have seen, then clearly there is attacking sharpness.

But we also need to go deeper. I feel in terms of entries, Asia is better than some of the European teams, but we have to convert them into shots at the World Cup. Also, once inside the circle, you have to take quick decisions on whether to shoot or pass. No team will give easy space or chances. It’s a constant battle between striker and defender and we have to force the opponent to make an error, keep fighting the defence and get to the ball first. There needs to be a change of positioning and mentality and we have worked on it. But with the World Cup close, we are having extra classes for them.

How do you see the World Cup in terms of targets for the team, the players and yourself?

See, no team goes to a World Cup to simply participate and India is one of the 16 contenders for the title. What we did during the Junior World Cup and other tournaments was to divide the entire tournament into stages and take it one stage at a time, and that’s the pattern we are looking to follow here.

The final may be on December 16, but the first step towards that will be on November 28 and that is equally important. I have the confidence and everyone has the ambition, but there is a difference between wanting and doing it. The reality is how we play the first game will show the road ahead — win three points and everyone including the players, the fans, the media will get a clearer picture. Once the league is over, I have always believed that the biggest match in such a format is the quarterfinals. That game decides whether you get a medal or bow out of the race. There is zero margin of error in a quarterfinal. If we go past that, India wouldn’t look back.

For players, I tell them it is a chance to script history at home. If you do that, you leave behind a legacy, like the juniors did.

You were with the team back in 2010 when India last hosted the World Cup. How much change do you see in the last eight years?

A lot, in every aspect of the game — rules, pattern of play, team structure. Australia’s total domination for five-six years forced many teams to rethink the skills and structure of players, and you now see a lot of them going back to the attacking hockey format preferred by India and Pakistan. That has led to a lot more goals being scored. Players are getting more involved in decision-making through referrals and getting good at it. The percentage of favourable decisions has also gone up. Also, almost every team now has two-three good drag-flickers, whereas earlier a lot more goals were being scored through field play and the four-quarter format has only increased the speed of the game.

Indian hockey has become a lot more professional and scientific. Players are explained their training through data, gadgets and detailed planning. There is increased continuity with matches and camps. Earlier we used to play 16-20 international matches a year. Now it has gone up to 50-60 and a lot of credit goes to Hockey India.

With HIL (Hockey India League), the confidence graph of team has also increased, both for national and non-national players. Their lifestyles have changed; there is more financial security, which makes them think beyond just a job and there is more discipline.

Are there any fears or concerns?

As a coach, in terms of results, raising expectations too high will always hurt if things go wrong. But I believe if I have done my homework well the result will be good. For the country though, having expectations from any team is its right.

My only concern is player education and that is independent of the World Cup and its results. We need to stress on education right from the beginning because it helps players take decisions on the field. The small details we provide as staff, they will understand themselves and won’t need any explanations.