Cedric's assessment of World Cup teams

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

COACHING an Indian team for the World Cup is a demanding task, a matter of striking a balance between realities and expectations. A one-time superpower forced to go through a qualifying event at Edinburgh is now considered having the potential to go all the way at Kuala Lumpur. There is a scent of success and comparisons too, since India's last World Cup triumph under Ajitpal Singh happened at Kuala Lumpur in 1975.

VINO JOHN

For Cedric, on his second World Cup assignment, current form matters more. Ever since the Indian Hockey Federation handed over the responsibility of coaching, he has followed a step-by-step approach, confident that results will bear him out. His methods are unconventional and in the face of strong opposition, he stuck to his beliefs and methods. The Champions Challenge win at Kuala Lumpur, silenced many doubters, leaving Cedric free to continue preparations on his chosen path, based on simulation of match situations during training, extensive video sessions and detailed study of opponents. The intensity he brings to coaching lends an impression of preparations taken to the extremes.

Excerpts from an interview:

Question: Was the Champions Challenge victory a sign of the pieces falling into place from the point of view of preparations? Is the Indian team ready for the 2002 World Cup challenge?

Answer: When I took on the job in January this year I had set my self three targets - to qualify for the World Cup, to win the Champions Challenge and earn a medal at the World Cup. We have already achieved two of the three, and now embark on the third objective with a little more self-belief, confidence and fervour. We did a lot of touring over the first six months this year, where we exposed ourselves to all sorts of international opposition, making assessments and analysing the strengths and weaknesses of our team as well as others.

After the qualifier, I set myself on rectifying work and the last three months have been nothing but identifying the deficiencies and working on some tactical manoeuvres that would enhance our performance. So I am really pleased that all the hard work has paid off and that we achieved our objective. I do sincerely believe that looking at the progress we have made as well as the self belief, focus, commitment and desire that the players now have inculcated, we should be ready to embark on our World Cup challenge.

This is your second World Cup coaching assignment, after the 1994 Sydney World Cup experience. Taking over just a fortnight before the event, you guided India to the fifth position then. Do you think the current squad is better equipped now, since you enjoyed a longer reign as national coach to do things your way in the run-up to Kuala Lumpur?

One should not make comparisons with different teams, for example - different opposition and their standards of play, different rules (the advent of the no offside) that of course led to new tactics and strategies. So without much ado. I would like to say that with time players get to know the coach better and vice versa, rapport and communication also get further cemented and with continuity in training camps. Team strategies and understanding also become further enhanced.

Talent has never been our weak point when facing international competition. Rather tactical naivete and inconsistency under pressure have been the weak areas! Do you feel the squad for Kuala Lumpur will be able to realise its potential?

One must identify and learn from past mistakes - making sure that time is spent in analysing and rectifying them. The other point is to work, work and work yourself to a grinding halt, training as much as possible for the unexpected as well as simulating events and game ploys that you would encounter. I do believe victories are the best tonic to increase self-confidence, and at the moment this is very high in our team. Apart from this, a message has already been sent to the rest of the world that we are no pushovers but real threats. One must also train and be competent in the following mental aspects - the ability to make the right decisions, be aggressive and at the same time be composed, to be able to soak pressure, to perform to expectations when the chips are down, to continue to believe in your ability and to emit an aura of confidence and at times arrogance too.

Every team fears India at the World Cup, because India can beat anyone. How do you think we can cash in on this fear of the unknown?

The most important thing is that we must play through our strengths, work on our weaknesses and play with the same self-belief and unflagging confidence. And as our forte is skill, we permit the players to be creative, especially in the last 23 meters thereby keeping the opposition guessing as to what is in store. Yes, there should be a basic framework and game-plan that one uses but one must not be rigid because coaches the world over would easily catch on to this and plan counter measures. When there is no limit to creativity from a team that is performing well and is full of confidence then you can be sure the opposition will be worried.

India's 1975 World Cup victory at Kuala Lumpur under Ajitpal Singh is of little relevance today except as a date in history reminding us of our glorious past. How significant is India's Junior World Cup triumph at Hobart towards giving us a base for building up successful sides in future?

The IHF had a plan for Hobart which really was to expose as many juniors as possible with the senior team during the course of this past year so much so that 14 of the 18 that went to Hobart had represented the Senior and National 'A' team, facing senior international opposition across the globe. I for one did sincerely believe that winning at Hobart was a forgone conclusion and had made categorical statements to this effect months in advance. India's victory at Hobart and the victory at the Champions Challenge are very significant and important for the future. This base is well set with atleast 30-odd players experienced and ready to face the rigors of international competition and take on the best. Apart from these victories, the feeder route is also being put into place with the under-18s also being exposed and performing creditably. Yes the future sure looks bright.

Jugraj Singh's progress as a penalty corner drag-flicker at the Junior World Cup continued at the senior level in the Champions Challenge. Your comment on the reasons behind his emergence as a front-runner for India in this vital element of hockey, since specialists like Jorge Lombi, Sohail Abbas and Bram Lomans are considered match-winners today. Your assessment of Baljit Singh Dhillon and Dilip Tirkey, two other penalty corner experts in the World Cup squad.

Jugraj came good at the junior level mainly because of his lethal power in his drag flick. During the last camp we did make subtle changes to his positioning and release during the drag flick that further enhanced his power - the proof of this was the two brilliant flicks that he scored at the Champions Challenge, sheer power that flew past helpless 'keepers. He is young, energetic and extremely confident and with experience can only get better at his art.

Being young, he will serve India for years and if the rules don't change I can vouch that he will be the answer to our penalty corner deficiencies. As far as captain Baljit Singh Dhillon and Dilip Tirkey, their roles during our penalty corner attacks- will definitely have some plans up our sleeves, which will unfold at the appropriate time.

Goals from penalty corners is a welcome bonus for the Indian team, since field goals from our forwards are fewer, despite dominant in matchplay. What do you think about our penalty corner defence? Will you give special attention to any other areas towards helping our team play upto its strengths?

Well, one cannot get too emotional about winning this Champions Challenge. We have to put on our analytical thinking caps and identify the areas that need to be worked on. To name a few - communication, goal-scoring, penalty corners in attack and defence and tighter defending especially when we are in the 23 metre line (to prevent counterattacks).

The Champions Challenge title at Kuala Lumpur thrust India into the elite zone. So when the team returns to the same venue for the 2002 World Cup, what can the fans expect? As the coach, what can you promise the nation?

I am one who does not make bombastic statements or set unrealistic goals. I base my objectives after closely studying my team's strengths and weaknesses as well as the opposition. Having said this, I do feel that we are playing very well as a unit, the morale is high, confidence is brimming and a great amount of hard work has been done and will be continued. The team, I would say, has improved about 25 per cent from the qualifiers and this shows that we have worked very hard during the camps on our fitness, skills and mental make-up. The key issues being - our set pieces (penalty corners attack and defence), our goal scoring, mobility with and without the ball, transference from defence into attack etc We did make some subtle changes in our set plays in the finals at the Champs and I was thrilled to see that it worked to perfection. I do sincerely belief that if we continue in the same manner and can put away 30 per cent more of the chances that we create then the sky is the limit.

Australia: A vastly improved team with its own style of aggression, skill and tactics. Fit and very quick in the circle when firing at the opposition. Use a lot of players upfront when attacking and this could leave the team susceptible to the counter attack. Players to watch: strikers Troy Elder, Mathew Smith and midfielder Paul Gudoin.

Argentina: A team that plays on soccer style, fast on the break and capitalise on set plays. Jorge Lombi being its most prolific scorer from the penalty corner.

Belgium: A team that has no big names but plays as one unit, each player complimenting one another. It plays the typical European brand and will give most teams a run for their money.

Cuba: For me an unknown team as I have not yet viewed it or seen the tapes however it plays a brand of soccer-style hockey - with some skilful players with overall fitness being very good.

Germany: Probably the team with the best seeding, has played consistently; winning most of the tournaments it has participated in 2001. Disciplined style of play which wears you down with its methodic pattern. Very good on the set pieces. Kunz being the team's most consistent scorer from penalty corners, with striker Oliver Domke lethal in the circle and Phillip Crone, Michael Green strong experienced markers and defenders.

Spain: A team with a lot of flair in attack as well as good defensive play, has good set pieces and some brilliant skillful individual players. It is probably one of the teams that could be real crowd-pullers. Strikers Xavier Arnau, Pablo Amat and Juan Escarre being the players to watch.

Pakistan: Skill and Sohail Abbas two components that could be critical to the team's fortunes in the World Cup. With the return of Shahbaz Ahmed the team can only get better. We all know what Asian teams can do to the opposition when they are on song.

South Africa: Fit and growing in confidence, could give many a team a hard time. It has the capacity to defend well with sudden breakaway moves. Player to watch - striker Greg Nicol.

The Netherlands: The team that has lost the brilliance of Stephan Veen but still has the capacity to pull out something special when the situation warrants. Its quality players, strikers Teun de Noojier, Remco van Wijk with defenders Bram Lomans and Tacama firing the penalty corners.

Poland: A team with limited player base but with a lot of experience and good understanding as most of the players belong to the Police team. It plays the traditional European brand, good defensive play, fast on the break and capitalise on most chances created. Players to watch are attackers Mikula brothers.

Korea: Fit and strong on the ball, play very fast hockey, breaking the opposition with its speed play. Suspect when put under constant pressure. Player to watch: striker Seong Song Tae.

Malaysia: Probably one of the most improved teams with good basics. Do not give you a lot of space to play and uses the counter attack well. Its set-play has also improved. Players to watch being goalkeeper Roslan, defender Nor Azlan Baber.

Japan: Its strength is the manner in which it keeps the ball moving with minimum holding, besides use of deflections and small one-twos an integral part of its pattern of play.

England: Again an improved side with the bull dog spirit also plays with a very flexible midfield that could very quickly support the floating strikers who create a lot of space. Quick hands in the circle when taking shots at goal. Players to watch: midfielder Billy Waugh and striker Danny Hall

New Zealand: A team that has good skillful players, fit and aggressive. It has good attacking flair, has good set plays and will cause problems for teams in its pool. Players to watch: striker Ryan Archibald, midfielder Simon Towns.