He strongly believes in the basics

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

HE may not really be the media's delight. But, the 44-year-old Indian hockey team chief coach, Rajinder Singh, tries to convey the impression that he is more focussed on the job than on winning the hearts of the `friends' in the media. And, he has not done anything really bad to be dumped aside. Plain facts suggest that he means business. The recent Asia Cup triumph and now the Afro-Asian Games gold medal, beating Pakistan 3-1 in the final, were results which were not as simple as they seem on paper. "It is a great performance which should do Indian hockey a world of good. The credit should go to the entire team for playing so consistently," says Rajinder Singh on the gold-medal performance in the Games.

And, if Rajinder Singh takes pride for blending a youthful and experienced combination into a winning one, not many can dispute that. No matter the results, it is unmistakable that the Indians are dishing out great hockey on the field. "Believe me when I had taken over the job, the concept was totally negative hockey. No specific strategy was there. To put it simply, it was confused hockey caught between the European and Asian styles. Worse, there was no seriousness amongst the players and I was shocked to see them enjoy even after losing to Australia in the four-nation event which was essentially an observation stint for me before taking charge completely," Rajinder Singh started off in a chat with The Sportstar.

"Then, I had a long session with K. P. S. Gill telling him how exactly I would handle the job. The first thing he told me was to give the boys commando-type training if I were to follow a coaching pattern to get results," says Rajinder Singh. "Some players didn't want to stay in the barracks there during the training and left. But, the focus was on mental toughness," he recalled. "Luckily, I was given a free hand to do my job by the Indian Hockey Federation," he says gratefully.

What was his first move? "Well, we immediately decided to stick to the original Asian style of hockey. I had problems in the beginning. For instance, the goalkeeping was poor, the role of attackers was zero. There was no thought given to retackling. But we gradually improved as the boys started responding," says Rajinder Singh. "There were no problems with the seniors while trying to bring the transition. Now you can see the results for yourself. They combine well now like a family and that is what ultimately counts — the team spirit to win under trying circumstances," he said to a query.

"There was video study, the players were given the freedom to express their views. Essentially, it was not a one-sided approach where the coach acts like a headmaster. Those were truly interactive sessions," he explained. Rajinder also says that to get the best feedback from the players he conducts meetings position wise — defenders, forwards, half-line and goalkeepers. "Reviewing the feedback, we used to take corrective measures," he added.

The Indian coach also points out that for the first time in recent memory this team has the grit and determination to take on any opponent. "Every effort is being made to eliminate the doubts in the minds of the players before entering the field. I keep telling them that after all they learnt the game from us and why we should be scared of others," Rajinder reasons out. And interestingly, he doesn't believe there is a need for a psychologist. "After all, there is no better judge than the player himself in making an objective assessment whether he played to his full potential or not," he said to a query.

There is no doubting that the chief coach believes strongly in the basics even with the seniors. Reaction speed, feeding the forwardline and re-tackling are his three doctrines for success. "I just hate indiscipline in any form. That was the first thing which I tried to eliminate in the team," he asserted. "The players should derive the immense pride of playing for the country and it is not an honour any Tom, Dick & Harry will get easily," he added.

Rajinder Singh, the Delhi-based Sports Authority of India coach, knows the value of scoring for he was the highest goal-getter in the 1981 World Cup in Mumbai with 13 goals and all through short-corners, as he himself insisted. And he is happy that the current Indian team has the commitment and is disciplined too. "We can certainly look for a brighter future," he says to another query. And at the same time he does not entertain any visions on the Athens Olympics medal. "Unless we cross the first hurdle — the qualifying tournament which has real tough teams, " he adds. What are the changes in the tournament? "On current form, there should not be any problem but we should not be complacent after some of the recent big wins," he cautions. That he keeps on trying to get the best of the players is apparent by his observation of Len Aiyappa. "He is a good drag-flicker. But I am not happy if he only does that. So I keep telling him to improve his footwork and play a more prominent role in the half-line. He is good and needs to improve a lot," says Rajinder. He also feels that Gagan Ajit Singh has to improve his game outside the `D', should be better in deception and placing the ball. The art of scoring comes when you master the ability to slip into the striking zone, he asserts. Examples which prove that the chief coach is not satisfied even with some key players. A good sign which should keep the Indian players on their toes and spur them to produce better results. "For me, the ultimate dream is to win an Olympic gold for India," Rajinder Singh concluded.