20 years of a hockey life!

“Earlier, I had a player’s mind. When I came out (from the camp)after two years my mindset changed; it is now a mind of a player-cum-coach,” says Tushar Khandker, a former 200-match India player and assistant coach.

Tushar Khandker is now a Mentor-cum-Player with Bharath Petroleum.   -  G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

At 32 years of age, playing in the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup all-India hockey tournament in Chennai recently, Tushar Khandker looked fighting fit.

Cutting his way past a sea of defenders against Bengaluru HA, Tushar’s precise pass found Gurnail Singh, who slotted it home.

He’s enjoying his role as mentor of BPCL, guiding younger players and sharing his international experiences with them.

“The only thing I know to do is play hockey,” said Tushar, a veteran of more than 200 International matches. “I don’t know anything else. I train in the morning and in the evening. From the time I was enrolled in 1998 in Banaras Sports hostel as a 13-year-old till now, my life has revolved around hockey.”

In this interview, the former India assistant coach talks about a range of things relating to the country’s hockey.

Excerpts:

Question: You were with Roelant Oltmans, India’s High Performance Director and head coach of the country’s men’s hockey team, for nearly two years (2014-2016) as his assistant. In those years, what were the takeaways?

Answer: I really enjoyed it as I learnt a lot not only from Roelant, but also from Terry (Walsh), M. K. Kaushik, (Jude) Felix. For two years, I learnt from each and everyone. It was a great journey although it was short.

Do you have plans of going back to the National camp as assistant coach?

When I went there, I had one thing in mind. Whatever I learnt as an International, I just wanted to share my experiences with the younger players such as Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Talwinder Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Mohammad Amir Khan and Mandeep Singh. I told them how to hold the ball, how to strike inside the ‘D’, how to run without the ball and how to create gaps.

What was the one major thing you learnt when you were at the National camp?

I learnt one thing from Roelant: how to manage the team when it is on a high and how to manage the team when it is low and how to maintain the level when you have won. And especially, how to select players and what you should look for in the players: fitness-wise, skill-wise and endurance-wise.

Are you looking at coaching as an option in the immediate future?

At the moment, I am trying to learn. I don’t know what is there in the future. I enjoy playing domestic hockey. If an opportunity comes, I’ll think about it. I am happy to share my experiences.

Seven uncapped players have been named for the tour of Belgium and Netherlands. Your views?

It is a good step by coaches, selectors and Hockey India. In 2018, we have the World Cup, the Commonwealth and the Asian Games. All these tournaments are important for India. It is a good decision to give chances to youngsters, which will give them good experience. Playing against tough teams like Belgium and Netherlands, will surely help them. Then one can have a good pool of players to pick the team for 2018.

Why did you come out from the India camp?

It was because of my family situation that I came out. I wanted to spend more time with my family.

How did the stint as India coach change you?

Earlier, I had a player’s mind. When I came out (from the camp) after two years my mindset changed; it is now a mind of a player-cum-coach. It is not that if somebody has played for 13 years, he can become a good coach. Coaching is a vast and different subject. A player has to learn how to become a coach. That’s what I feel.

Do you think that Oltmans is slowly losing his mojo? Criticism of him has surfaced in the media.

I don’t know about the criticisms. No one told me about that.

What are your views on the core group of the Indian National men’s team. Is it a necessity?

The core group is a good idea. You should work on quality and not on quantity. Only the best should represent India. If you want quantity, one should work at the grassroots, slowly quality will come. It makes more sense to have a core group at the top, the cream of Indian hockey.

Many State Governments are lacking in grassroots promotion as the number of school tournaments have shrunk over the years?

State Governments should look into it and conduct grassroots tournaments for u-12, -14, -16 and -21. From these tournaments, come quantity. We should work on it, and, promote hockey in the cities and states to get players. There are a lot more areas we have to work on. The State Governments and State Associations have to work together. Only then will we have a good Indian team. Haryana, Punjab, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, I believe, are doing quite well at the grassroots.

There is also a perception that Indian coaches are not being groomed to take over from Oltmans eventually?

If you talk about Olympians, everybody cannot be a good coach. If they want to work they should work at the grassroots. They can work in the city and state and promote hockey. If their (Olympians) target is to coach they can teach kids, they can do it in their own city. There are only two (Indian) teams, senior and junior. Everybody wants to become an Indian coach. There can only be four coaches (senior men and women and junior men and women). That (grooming Indian coaches) is Hockey India’s part. As far as I am concerned, I really learnt a lot from Roelant as well as from Terry apart from the Indian coaches.

The Indian hockey team’s High Performance Director and Head Coach Roelant Oltmans is doing a lot for the team, according to Khandker.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Do you think Indian coaches are being given enough opportunities?

That question should be asked to the Sports Authority of India and Hockey India. I am not the right person. (As coach) I went to the (Rio) Olympics, Champions Trophy, Asian Champions Trophy and Champions Trophy. Azlan Shah was the only tournament I didn’t go to (during my time as assistant coach). I also went to Bangladesh as chief coach for the India-Bangladesh Test series. When I started coaching I started with zero knowledge, not as one who has played more than 200 games. I started from scratch when I went to Roelant. Personally, I thought it was too early give me a chance, I’d say as a chief coach. It takes time.

What are the positives with Oltmans when compared to other Indian coaches?

I am not comparing foreign and Indian coaches. I learnt from Roelant how to manage the team. There are also off the field issues we have to manage. We have to bring the team together. It is an art. You have to have a mind on how to get the best from the players. We got the silver in the 2015 Champions Trophy, which India has never won before. He (Oltmans) has got the management skills to get the best out of the players.

What has been the major changes you have seen in the players since Oltmans took charge in 2013?

I can see the changes in the body language of the players. They look ready to take on any team in the world. Not that it was not there before, but it has got better under Roelant. In the last Hockey World League Semifinal in London, the defence wasn’t up to the mark. Roelant used to say ‘you can win a match by playing attacking hockey, but if you defend properly you can win the tournament.’

Are you a votary of Oltmans?

I have not said who should continue or who should not continue. What I learnt from Roelant I’ve told you. I have nothing to say on what Hockey India should do.

Should current Indian players find time to play in domestic tournaments?

This debate was there earlier too. The first thing is India. Domestic hockey is important, no doubt. There are a lot of things to think about. If a top player gets injured and if he has to play for India in the coming months, you have to give him rest. What if some major tournaments are coming and a player gets injured in a domestic tournament? Then the whole country will suffer.

Arguments will be there. My concern is that the Indian team should do well. I agree that domestic hockey is important as youngsters get to play with top players. It will be a good boost for the young players.

But even in camps players get injured...

That is only one point. What if Hockey India feels a player has to take rest to recover as he has to do well in other tournaments? We are all there for India, if you think that way.

If there is no camp or any major tournaments, top players can play. Last time (in the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup tournament) from BPCL, all the boys were there. When time is there, everybody will come and play.

There are talks of players being released from the national camp without being assigned a proper reason. How much communication is there between coaches, selectors and players?

I am quite sure why they are left out (of the National camp), and what they should do to come back into the team. That is the selectors’ call. I am not the authority to say anything about this.

When you were dropped, were any reasons given to you? Actually, has the chopping and changing of the team regularly remained the same from the times of the Indian Hockey Federation to Hockey India now?

It is performance based. If you perform you will be in the National team. From 2003 to 2012, I played continuously. I missed only one tournament, Azlan Shah. I don’t agree with you (on players being dropped or on the chopping and the changing of the team). It has always been performance-based.

Your thoughts on the future of Indian hockey...

I am quite sure in the forthcoming tournaments, we will do well. The concern all over the country is we should work more on the grassroots. I am sure we will do well in the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the World Cup next year.

I would like to make it clear that I am not targeting any Olympian. If you are thinking of Indian hockey, I request everybody to please work at the grassroots in their hometown. Only then can we have a good bunch of players and coaches.

What would you describe as your best moments?

I am the first Indian to have won the Asia Cup in all age groups: u-15, -18, -21 and seniors. That, I think, is a big achievement. Of course, winning the 2007 Asia Cup in Chennai was big. And qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics was great. We felt bad at not being able to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I was a playing member when we couldn’t make it in Chile (’08). That rankled for players like me, Surender Singh and Sardar (Singh) who wanted to make sure we were there in London.