`All we need is luck'

P.V. SIVAKUMAR

V. Baskaran strongly believes his team is capable of pulling off a MAJOR SURPRISE in Germany. "This World Cup may well be the beginning of a new chapter," says India's coach in a chat with V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM.

Vasudevan Baskaran, who led India to a gold medal win at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, has established an excellent rapport with the players after taking over as the national coach for the third time. Here he discusses India's chances in Monchengladbach, Germany.

Question: What made you take up the assignment for the third time?

Answer: It started after the 2004 Azlan Shah Cup. I was IHF's observer with Rajinder Singh (Jr) as chief coach. We finished last. I don't want to blame anyone. The boys just did not give their best. There was another dismal showing in the eight-nation event. By the end of the year, I had a one-to-one talk with K. P. S. Gill and expressed my desire to take over. I would have loved to take over in January this year itself than on May 2, 2006. That is the grudge I have.

How was the start in your third stint?

After 10 days of training we went for the four-nation tournament featuring Spain, Germany and Argentina. The results were a disappointing — we lost 1-3 to Germany and 3-4 to Spain. We beat Argentina 3-2. Somehow, I was very impressed with the game we played, if not the result.

What innovations have you tried this time around?

Many may not believe that we had a 20-day camp in Bangalore without touching the ball. It was a collective decision. We just had discussions with foreign experts and the seniors. I was not bothered about criticism. Then we went to Chennai for eight to nine days where the emphasis was on skills. Fortunately, it had a big impact on the team during the Azlan Shah Cup. We won the bronze medal in the eight-team event, which featured seven World Cup qualifiers.

How do you propose to carry on from the Azlan Shah performance?

The Azlan Shah tournament gave me a clear picture of how the Indian team benefited form the training methods adopted during the camps. The fitness level was very high, particularly against teams like Korea and the Netherlands. The Malaysian trip gave the boys confidence. I will say that the modest, if not big, innovation worked well. The boys' approach now is positive, and they are not scared of facing any challenges now. The whole attitude has changed.

What is the role of the Australian fitness trainer Derek Knox?

His motto is simple. The harder you train, the harder it will be for the opponents to beat you. This message has gone down well with the boys. It is evident from the way some of the players voluntarily want to train on their own after the regular sessions. This is the change I was looking for.

How prepared is this team now for the World Cup?

Mentally and physically, this Indian team is tougher, thanks to Derek's commitment in transforming the players into performing individuals. Honestly, this should be one of the fittest teams in recent years to play in a World Cup.

What is the major difference between India's preparations and that of the foreign teams?

The foreign teams don't play too many tournaments, but emphasise on weekend practice sessions. For the Indian team I preferred exposure tours before the World Cup, for no amount of training is equal to playing quality hockey against the big guns. The salient features like tight marking, not getting space in the first 20 minutes against these teams would only have made the Indians stronger and intelligent. What has pleased me about this Indian team is the way the boys responded to intensive schedules without grumbling. The team has a professional approach.

How much importance do you attach to having electronic gadgets during training?

Thanks to the IHF initiative, we bought almost everything we wanted. We had video sessions almost every day. Believe me, the boys came to these sessions like school students armed with notes. They asked probing questions and pointed out to what their colleagues should do. The interactions were extremely useful.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this Indian team?

I would put it this way. Basically, the boys were told not to commit too many mistakes in any position. The forward line should double up as the first line of defence. Re-tackling is one of the key factors. Simply put, to have two forwards groping for the ball means that the team is minus two on the field. Time is precious. Within eight seconds, the course of the match can change. Even the deep defenders should put the ball in the right place. I don't want to see Dilip Tirkey under pressure for want of space. The combinations of players such as Arjun Halappa and Vinay, Prabodh Tirkey and Dilip Tirkey have to be on their toes constantly.

What is your assessment of the other teams in the World Cup?

The draw is similar to the one we had in Utrecht where I was the coach. I feel Holland is the team to watch out for. They are a classy team. They play very authentic hockey, are good ball players and don't panic even if they are down by two goals and so on. They have a very good foundation, thanks to excellent planning. For us, the opening match against hosts Germany will be tough. We have to look for a win. But we should also look at the fact that there will be still five more matches. A good start would be the perfect launch pad. Our boys are not overawed by the draw. They are ready for the challenges.

Personally, what has been the most bitter experience for you in a World Cup?

The 2-3 loss to Korea in Utrecht in 1998 still haunts me. We conceded a goal in the last eight seconds. This hurt me and my players. After having played exceptionally well, we were slack in the dying seconds, which the opponents capitalised on. As a coach, I hate these things being repeated.

Similarly, the loss to Poland in the final seconds at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was shattering. I kept discussing these things in the camp so that these mistakes are not repeated at the forthcoming World Cup. I kept telling the boys to not only work hard right till the end, but ensure that they taste the fruits of success too.

Are you under pressure to produce good results?

Absolutely not. My target is to see that the players don't repeat the mistakes. I am result-oriented and the boys seem to realise this. I can't ask for too many things at this time, but since the team is really shaping up well I don't think I am in the hot seat.

What are your expectations?

I don't want to boast. I don't want to put pressure on my boys. We plan to take each match at a time. But one thing is certain, this team is capable of surprising the critics. This World Cup may well be the beginning of a new chapter. All we need is a bit of luck.