Indian hockey: There’s hope, hype and pressure

India’s men’s and women’s hockey teams have qualified for the 2020 Olympics, but they will need to do more to have a realistic chance of winning a medal.

Indian women's hockey team coach Sjoerd Marijne and captain Rani Rampal. So far, the women haven’t really felt the pressure of public expectations.   -  PTI

Sjoerd Marijne and Graham Reid are as similar as chalk and cheese but the recent Olympic Qualifiers found them on the same side in terms of the result, way ahead for the next 10 months and what they seek at the end of that period. But there is so much that is different between the Dutchman and the Australian that it could well be a study in contrast — as much in where they have come from as in where they would go from here.

Handling the Indian women’s and men’s hockey teams respectively, they know, is one of the toughest jobs in world sports. The challenges, though, are completely different. And, in the next 10 months, they would know how far they have been able to live up to the hope, hype and pressures of the same.

In and out of the spotlight

Being always in the spotlight can be a double-edged weapon. Some thrive in the attention, others wither away. But that would be a simplistic breakdown, specially in team sports where the team dynamics make it — like in the Indian hockey teams — far more complex.

In a country that never tires of ‘eight Olympic golds’ in the sport, the men have always had a disproportionate share of the limelight. The players are stars, both on and off the field. Most of them love a good life, which is not a crime, but a lot of young talents have also been lost to the fame. Harjeet Singh, the captain of the Junior World Cup winning side who also had a movie made on his life, is nowhere now, as are several of his teammates. There is a history that they are constantly compared to, even though the last flare of that history was in 1980.

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Most importantly, the contradictory Indian societal structure — that doesn’t believe in delegating responsibility to the players all through their growing years only to be quick with blaming them for failure — has meant that the Indian team, despite everything, remains a coach-oriented side. That is unlikely to change soon but unless the players become equal stakeholders in the entire process, it would be difficult to break the Olympics jinx.

As a unit, though, the Indian women seem to be able to hunker down to the job far better than the men in the shadows. That is not to say they do not need recognition or appreciation. If anything, their progress over the past couple of years merits far more attention than they have received. But so far, the women haven’t really felt the pressure of public expectations.

Their recent successes — winning the Asia Cup in 2017, runner-up at the Asian Games, a respectable eighth finish at the World Cup, victory at the FIH Series Finals against Asiad winner Japan and the dramatic win on aggregate in the Olympic Qualifier — have all come when the collective focus was on the men. That is expected to change here on.

Indian men's hockey team chief coach Graham Reid and captain Manpreet Singh. Reid has pointed out his unhappiness at India’s sluggish start, low energy and jittery in high pressure situations.   -  PTI

 

“You want to be there (at the Olympics) because as a team we believe we can do better than the previous Olympics, but you have to be there to prove that. Our dream would be to do really well at the Olympics and get a medal. It is back to the drawing board, step one is over but there is a lot that needs to be done now to achieve that,” Marijne said. That the women have gone from 12th in the world when he took over to ninth now — three places that is actually a lot more difficult than it sounds — in the same time that the men have managed to jump from sixth to only fifth — reflects the growth. At the Asiad last year, when the men were favourite to win but were stunned to end with just a bronze, the women went a step ahead and narrowly missed on the gold. That, perhaps, was the first time people actually began taking them as seriously as the men and as medal prospects. The glut of lifestyle pieces on Rani and others only added to the visibility.

It’s to Marijne’s credit, with support from the rest of the staff including scientific advisor Wayne Lombard, that the girls have not lost their focus in the glare of this sudden adulation. It is interesting to note that the same ‘take responsibility on field’ philosophy — Marijne attempted it with the men when the coaches were swapped for a brief while in 2017-18 and it backfired — has worked wonders with the women. The responsibility only becomes bigger now.

Indian women and men's hockey teams jointly pose for a group photograph at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar after qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.   -  PTI

 

Camps cannot replace actual match time

Since 2017, the Indian men have participated in 16 competitions and have had nine tours for test series. Many of them including big-ticket events like the World Cup and the World League Finals have been played in front of adoring, packed home crowds. In the same period, the women have had nine competitions and as many tours. These include regulars like the Commonwealth and Asian Games and Asia Cup. The Olympic Qualifier was the first time most members of the Indian side played at home.

Long training camps, regardless of its intensity, can almost never replace actual competition and matches. Even with the decent competitive outing the men have struggled this year after Hockey India pulled the plug on India’s participation in the inaugural Pro League, deprived of top-quality competition and the rust clearly showed. With Pakistan pulling out, India was handed an invite back into the fold and that has assured the team of quality game time against top-tier opposition in the first six months of 2020 ahead of the Olympics, something Reid admits he is grateful for.

That is a luxury Marijne doesn’t have. In fact, Hockey India is yet to work out a competition schedule for them between now and July 2020, when the Tokyo Games kick off. Even otherwise, the women have traditionally struggled for enough top-level exposure. This year the team toured Malaysia and Great Britain before and after the FIH World Series. Next year, with the Pro League ending just weeks before the Olympics, the team will be starved.

Work on the basics

Apart from all the competition, exposure and mental toughness — or disintegration — that the teams have been through and would be doing more of in the coming months, it ultimately comes down to getting the basics right on the field for those 60 minutes, match after match at the Olympics. But that is purely a matter of working on it on a loop. Repetition is boring but necessary to drill actions into the subconscious. It also needs a balance between mind and muscle to do that.

Reid has pointed out his unhappiness at India’s sluggish start, low energy and jittery in high pressure situations. But India is notorious in finish as well, on both ends of the field. ‘We are creating chances, now we need to finish them’ and ‘we need to remember that the game isn’t over till the final second’ are cliches that we have been hearing about the team for ages. In several sets of Olympic Qualifiers, matches have turned around in the final couple of seconds. India itself paid the price against Pakistan at the 2018 CWG with the equaliser coming at the stroke of time. Every coach — Indian, Australian, Dutch — has been frustrated by these. Hopefully, Reid can do what the others couldn’t.

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For the women, the biggest challenge would be to keep doing what they have been doing for the past two years, improving on strength and staying focused and more importantly, not lose anyone from the staff after analytical coach Eric Wonink, demoted to the juniors. Marijne, Lombard, Wonink and Robin Arkell have done wonders for this side.

Also, all those competitions and tours saw the Indian men testing new players on every outing, oscillating between going young and falling back on experience. In contrast, the women’s team has been largely stable through it all with the core group of 20-22 being almost the same. The co-ordination and comfort level shows and by now, both Reid and Marijne should have their final 24 pencilled in and not experiment too much.