‘A karma that I have to repay'

I'm learing the realities of Indian hockey. It's certainly different from anything I've experienced in Australia. There are a lot of good people in India and there are a few people that are more interested in themselves than in Indian hockey. - Michael Nobbs-PICS: K. MURALIKUMAR

“India's had a wonderful heritage of hockey. If we can lift the profile of hockey in India, a lot of young kids can look up to the Sandeeps and the Sardaras. It gives them a hero, like in cricket with Tendulkar and all those guys. To play for your country is a wonderful thing. If you can give them an ambition and someone to look up to, they will tend to do something about it instead of just grizzle,” says the Indian coach, Michael Nobbs, in a chat with Shreedutta Chidananda

Evening finds Michael Nobbs in markedly better spirits. The morning's diarrhoea (“anything that goes in comes straight back out”), he assures, is now gone. “The doctor gave me one pill and cured it.” Although the task of coaching the Indian hockey team may not have been punishing enough to lay him down (a piece of chicken, the culprit), work hasn't been a stroll in the park either.

“It's been hard,” he exhales. “I'm learning the realities of Indian hockey. It's certainly different from anything I've experienced in Australia. There are a lot of good people in India and there are a few people that are more interested in themselves than in Indian hockey.”

Nobbs took charge of the Indian team early July, leaving behind his coaching jobs and metabolic-testing business in Perth, and set up base at the Sports Authority of India's southern centre, on Bangalore's south-western fringes. “I was asked by Pargat (Singh) and (S. S.) Grewal to look at the Punjab coaching situation as I've done in Japan over many years, and basically when I got here they said ‘would you like to apply for the Indian job?' And I thought why not.”

Opening his presentation to the Hockey India interview panel with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, the 57-year-old proposed, among other things, a departure from the struggles with the European style of play and a return to the formations and ideas of old (that Australia later adopted to great success). Nobbs also insisted fitness and sports science deserved enormous importance. (“It wasn't that India went backwards,” he had remarked, “just that every other country went forwards.”)

Preparing for the challenges ahead... India's coach Michael Nobbs (far left) puts his wards through the paces at the National camp at SAI's southern centre in Kengeri, Bangalore.-

“One style is not necessarily more or less successful than the other,” Nobbs says. “If you look over the years, the Germans, the Dutch, the Australians have all been successful. It's probably due to the players as well, though the style does help. It's very difficult to get Australian players to play in the European style or Indian players to play like Europeans. When you try and change you make mistakes along the way. That's the only way you learn. Clearly people thought at that time that if we did this we could get some success. It didn't quite work out that way.”

Casting his mind back to his own experiences playing against India, Nobbs sighs. “Aah, fantastic hockey matches. Coming off the field, you could hardly walk. That's what I always remember about playing India — they were ‘don't worry about defence; let's just attack all day' — titanic battles; great fun. If you're going to lose a match, you'd rather lose 6-5 than 1-0.”

Fellow Western Australian David John joined the support staff as exercise physiologist at Nobbs's request. The progress since, the latter feels, has been visible. “The AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) started in 1982; so we've been going at it for 30-odd years and India hasn't. And the results are quite self-evident. It's going to make an enormous difference if our athletes can stay on the track longer, fitter, faster and not get injured, and if the rehab is going to be quicker.

“We've discovered that some of the athletes have very low iron levels — now that is the oxygen transport system and it means they simply can't play that long. So there are many, many, many things. All we can hope to do is control the ‘controllables'. The players, for their part, have embraced it wholeheartedly. David John is a brilliant exercise physiologist and it's his part of the reshaping of the landscape of Indian hockey. If we get it right, we'll have set the template for other coaches to follow in our footsteps.”

`What Ric Charlesworth (above) has done in his life, I don't think will be repeated by many athletes - being a medical doctor, cricketer, federal parliamentatian, and coaching the women's team to gold medals in the Olympics and the men's team to gold medals (World Cup, Champions Trophy, Commonwealth Games). When he was a player, he'd be the last person to leave the field. His tenacity, obsession with perfection, courage on the field. He's just a person you look up to.'-

But his brief with Indian hockey, Nobbs feels, is not restricted to work on the pitch alone. Building a website (work on which is underway) with profiles of players, he agrees, will help prevent the country losing all athletes to one sport. “It's the same in Australia as well. You know, we've only got 23-25 million people and all of the sports — cricket, Aussie Rules, tennis, basketball — are competing for a very small group of athletes. It's very competitive. Here, you've got 1.2 billion people. It's only a matter of getting your resources together and starting to get structures in place. India's had a wonderful heritage of hockey. If we can lift the profile of hockey in India, a lot of young kids can look up to the Sandeeps and the Sardaras. It gives them a hero, like in cricket with Tendulkar and all those guys. To play for your country is a wonderful thing. If you can give them an ambition and someone to look up to, they will tend to do something about it instead of just grizzle. I think it's really important for Indian hockey — as my friends in FIH say — that India's back on the top up there.”

His proposal to have ‘multiple captains' has, perhaps surprisingly, met with little scepticism. “Well, no one said anything when I presented it at the meeting,” Nobbs laughs. “So I assume that gave me permission to do it. And it makes sense having a leadership group as well, because there are personality conflicts and clashes anyway with senior players feeling ‘I should be captain' and so on. But you do find leaders that can help young players on the field. So, three or four or five could certainly be part of a leadership group. As Ric Charlesworth once said, all most captains do is, toss the coin.”

It requires little urging to hear what stratospheric regard Nobbs holds his predecessor in. “Immense. What Ric Charlesworth has done in his life, I don't think will be repeated by many athletes — being a medical doctor, cricketer, federal parliamentarian, and coaching the women's team to gold medals in the Olympics and the men's team to gold medals (World Cup, Champions Trophy, Commonwealth Games). When he was a player, he'd be the last person to leave the field. His tenacity, obsession with perfection, courage on the field… he's just a person you look up to. I've always admired Ric ever since the day he got me to come and play hockey in Perth. He's just one of those rare individuals. It's the old story: if you want to be a good coach, copy a good coach, and I hope I'm walking in his footsteps.”

Despite admitting that he would need a year before calling any team his own, Nobbs understands that he will be judged on India's performance in February's Olympic qualifiers. “It's right that people do try and judge us. Look, if we make it, it's fantastic. If not, we'll have done our best; we'll have tried to cover everything we possibly could.”

The competitions that lead up to the qualifiers (Asian Champions Trophy, Champions Trophy, CHOGM), though, will be treated as opportunities to experiment without too much being read into the results. Though Nobbs insists all players are equally good, it's not hard to see how highly he rates Sardara Singh. “He's a half back and I'm a half back, so I love the style,” he laughs. “But look they're all really classy players. I'm not concentrating on individuals as such. They have to fit into the team, the style, and the patterns. Generally, we've got this culture developing that it's India first and not the individuals — not the friends and all those sorts of things that I've seen in the Indian landscape. It's all about India and everyone focusing on the same goal.”

The National camp began with 91 members but the number, following two sets of trials, has now been whittled down to 36. Unsurprisingly, one or two exits have been acrimonious. Nobbs, though, says he is not upset in the slightest. “It's part of a change. Players can get upset but basically I'm coming and I don't know them. There are no personalities involved; I'm assessing them on form to see where they'll fit in the team. If they really had India at heart instead of themselves, I think Indian hockey would be far better off.”

The alleged interference, politicking and red tape that hastened the exits of some of his predecessors was not playing on his mind when he took up the job, Nobbs says, before clarifying that he has seen none of it so far. “If I leave here at some point, I still have challenges and things to do in my life. This is a kind of a thank you. If it wasn't for Indian hockey, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today. I owe a tremendous amount to Indian hockey. Maybe it's the karma that I have to repay.”