Looking at the big picture

Though India finished fifth in the six-nation tournament, the chief coach, Michael Nobbs, is more than satisfied with his wards. “We set off for this tournament with several aims and I think we have achieved almost all of them,” he says. By Uthra Ganesan.

It is not easy to change the mindset of the people in Indian sport. It is even more difficult when the change requires moving away from winning less important events and focusing on bigger prizes.

For a long time, winning was the only thing that mattered in Indian sport. Every small victory was cheered, and every title won, howsoever insignificant, was lauded. To some extent, it was justified, for international sporting success for India was a rarity.

Under the circumstances, Indian hockey was already a winner even before the men’s national team left for the annual Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia. With 10 of the 18 players drawn from the junior ranks — players who would be eligible to play in the Junior World Cup, to be hosted by India in December this year — the chief coach, Michael Nobbs, had finally managed to shift the officials’ focus from titles to development.

Even though India only finished fifth in the six-nation tournament, Nobbs was more than satisfied with his wards. “We set off for this tournament with several aims and I think we have achieved almost all of them. My only disappointment is finishing fifth, for reasons beyond our control, since I realistically thought we should have been in the top four,” the chief coach said.

Nobbs’ objectives with respect to the Azlan Shah tournament were to rest for the overworked senior players by drafting in the juniors, develop the younger players by giving them practice and exposure ahead of the Junior World Cup, gauge their international aptitude and match fitness, put in place a process for a smooth transition from junior to senior levels and spread a similar pattern of play across all age groups by getting the juniors to play with the seniors.

“I am satisfied in almost all respects. The seniors needed rest after being in action since November. We had planned to give half of them rest during this tournament and the other half during the India-Pakistan series, but now that the Pakistan series has been cancelled, it’s taken care of,” Nobbs said.

As far as the focus on juniors was concerned, Nobbs was more than happy with the results. “See, a lot of these players have actually been fast-tracked into the senior system of play. They are inexperienced. Many of them, like Mandeep Singh, Satbir Singh, Gurmail Singh and M. B. Aiyappa, have never even been with us in camps. So, it was always going to be difficult for them. The best thing this tournament has done is to make them realise the pattern we expect them to play.

“And with junior national coach Baljit Singh Saini with us in Ipoh, he now knows exactly the areas that we need to work on with these kids in the nine months till the Junior World Cup, which is our main concern,” he said.

What was equally heartening for Nobbs was the performance of the Indian team in the competition despite being the youngest in the fray. Apart from the Australians, who always plan from one Olympics to another and so turned up with a mix of youth and experience, all the other participating teams were quite strong. While Pakistan and New Zealand were without only 2-3 senior players, Korea and Malaysia played their regular teams. Yet, India was never comprehensively beaten.

However, what gives Nobbs the biggest hope is the synchronisation that seems close to being realised between seniors and juniors in Indian hockey. “The domestic circuit in India has nothing in common with international hockey played now, that’s the sad truth. And all these youngsters come from the same domestic system.

“But now, when they go back to the camps and their domestic teams, they will know the national team’s system of play and hopefully spread it around. It has started with players like Manpreet Singh and Kothajit Singh, who have been part of the senior team for quite some time now. Being eligible for the junior team as well, they have already begun spreading the training methodology among the juniors.

“In time, hopefully, there will be uniformity in structure, which in turn will make the transition from one level to another more smooth,” Nobbs said, outlining his long-term plans.

For now, however, the coach is keeping his fingers crossed for a positive new beginning in Indian hockey.