‘It is important to expose India to more women’s hockey’

Neil Hawgood…“I would like to see more games at home because that's the big thing we are missing."-

“It’s not really a matter where the players come from. If certain states or regions are producing them, it’s good. What is important is to have a deeper pool of players, not wider,” says Neil Hawgood, the Chief Coach of the Indian women’s hockey team. By Uthra Ganesan.

The Indian women’s hockey team will be participating in the Champions Challenge I by the end of April in Glasgow, hoping to qualify for its maiden Champions Trophy in 2016. The Chief Coach, Neil Hawgood, though, says that improving the players’ game would be more important than the result itself. This will be India’s second outing in the tournament under Hawgood, having finished seventh from a field of eight teams in 2012. With the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games scheduled later this year, the coach speaks about his players, the new format and the level of domestic hockey in India.

Excerpts:

Question: The Champions Challenge will be the first big tournament for the team since the Asian Champions Trophy in November last. What are your expectations?

Answer: My hopes are that we actually play well because we haven’t played an international game in six months. The Asian Games will be the big-ticket event. That’s where we will see where we are in Asia. Actually, we are not that far from the top teams in the continent; we saw that at the Asia Cup and the Asian Champions Trophy last year. Fitness-wise, the girls are pretty good and getting better.

The last edition of the tournament was also your first in charge of the Indian team. How much and what has changed?

I think we have seen a lot of difference in the level of the athletes, a lot of improvement. We finished among the medals in three tournaments last year. We will now be playing a Test series with Ireland before the Champions Challenge. So yes, there have been developments but there is still a lot more to do.

What are your views on the new four quarters rule in international hockey?

Well, I am not too sure that the reason they came up with this rule is actually going to make hockey any more exciting. This format was first experimented in the early 1990s, when I was still playing. I have played this four quarters thing. I think the game at the international level is a little bit more tactical than it is at the Hockey India League or the European League, where it is more entertainment. I hope something does happen because hockey needs something to entertain people.

Were you surprised by the FIH decision to change the format?

Well, it would have been nicer to know the changes weeks ago, you could have tried it at more tournaments including at the domestic level. I read that New Zealand isn’t happy that it found out through the media and I think that’s wrong — the media telling associations about rule changes. The real adaptation has to be done by the coaches and it would have been nicer if we had been gradually eased into it.

A new direction… action from a match between Railways and Uttar Pradesh in the Hockey India Women’s National Championship in Bhopal recently. India’s Chief Coach is of the view that breaking the Nationals into two divisions is the right thing.-PTI

Do you think it will be a disadvantage given that it will be tested for the first time at an important event like the Asian Games?

Not really. See, with the kind of rotations we do and everything, some of the girls do end up playing quarter hockey format in the end — 12-15 minutes of play then a break. So technically, we are already doing it within the 70 minutes anyway. It’s just a matter of playing for 15 minutes and then you can talk about it. Tactically, yes, the game could end up being different in every quarter.

You have said that the National Championships are important for farming new talent. Did you see any at this year’s event?

I think breaking it into two divisions is the right thing. I have seen noticeable improvement in a lot of girls at the junior level. I think I have seen about 10 fresh faces, which is actually not a small number because you don’t really have that big a turnout in these squads at the Nationals.

The thing now is for the academies and states to catch up with those at the National level. I think there are about 60-70 athletes right now who are a lot better than the rest.

Will there be changes in the team based on what you have seen?

Yes, there will be a few changes, but they won’t be made now because it’s too late. I am not sure when, maybe after the CWG. If I get about 10 new faces in the camp, I will be happy because it’s a squad of 30 we are actually interested in. But that will be in the next 6-12 months. We will see how everyone goes in the next two tournaments.

What about the girls in the National team? How much have they improved?

Well, they have definitely improved in terms of fitness. But yes, I was disappointed in some of the decisions the girls made in recent games, considering we have spent two years working on them. It doesn’t matter what style of hockey you play, the team or its structure does change with different staff in domestic tournaments, but more in the girls themselves.

Can you give an example?

Individual problems — holding on too long, not letting go, avoiding one-touch passing — disappointed me. Some of the things they did, they can get away with in domestic competitions. If you do that in international competition, you are in big trouble.

Do you think it has to do with the mental aptitude that they are unable to switch between styles?

Not really. I think it has more to do with the coaching. Through the Nationals, I saw a lot of games with maybe one, two substitutions, in over 30 degrees heat. That doesn’t make sense to me. You got the bench and you got 70 minutes of hockey to play, so use your bench to play your best when you want it. I think we need a little more coach education than changing the girls.

One of your agenda was to expand the talent base, but we are still seeing a majority of players in the National team from traditional pockets only. What needs to be done?

It is always good to have a larger field to pluck players from. Having said that, it’s not really a matter where the players come from. If certain states or regions are producing them, it’s good. What is important is to have a deeper pool of players, not wider.

See, Australia has the same issue, but no one complains about it. Australia is one of the better teams in the world and most of its players have come from two states for years now, but that hasn’t affected the team’s performance.

What do you think needs to be done to promote women’s hockey in India?

Things are gradually changing. Maybe we will get about 35-40 international games in the next cycle. What I would like to see is more games at home because that’s the big thing we are missing. We are travelling all the time; we would like to invite teams to come and play here. It is important to expose the girls to more media and India to more women’s hockey.