‘On making hockey simple and safe’

The expert at work… Charlesworth (right) in the commentary box during the 2002 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY The expert at work… Charlesworth (right) in the commentary box during the 2002 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur.

Ric Charlesworth is full of ideas for the development of hockey. “We can improve the sport by getting more space (less players on the pitch) and by replacing the penalty corner with a ‘power play’,” he says in an e-mail interview to Nandakumar Marar.

The expert at work…

Richard Charlesworth, appointed by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to work out a development plan for Indian hockey, will be here in December as part of a joint initiative with the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF). The International Olympic Association’s Olympic Solidarity Programme and the Indian Olympic Association are also collaborators in this attempt to put India hockey back on rails.

Charlesworth, 54, brings with him many years of experience, as player and captain of the Australian team and as coach of the world-beating ‘Hockeyroos’ (Australia’s women’s team). As an expert commentator on television at international tournaments, the Australian is aware of the modern shifts and trends in the game.

Charlesworth, a passionate follower of Indian hockey, has been advocating a shift in policy to make the sport simpler and safer. It is an observation shared by the followers of Asian hockey who are concerned by the fact that the sport appears to be drifting from bewitching skills and delightful goals to a brutal game played on artificial turf where the players wear protective masks during penalty corners to defend themselves against ferocious shots unleashed by drag-flickers.

Excerpts of the interview:

Question: You are coming from New Zealand cricket to Indian hockey. Why did you choose to switch sport?

Answer: Hockey has always been my first love and so this was an opportunity to return to the game.

Do you agree that hockey can evolve into a more dynamic sport, the way cricket is doing now by offering T20 as a new package to attract audiences, both at stadiums and on television?

Hockey already has the dynamism and drama. Of course we can improve the sport by simplifying it, getting more space (less players on the pitch) and by replacing the penalty corner with a ‘power play’. A ‘power play’ is like a penalty corner but with perhaps three or four attackers on the 25-yard line, with one hitting the ball in from the back line (like a penalty corner). Three defenders (including the goalkeeper) are in the goal and rush out to defend. The attackers must trap the ball once it crosses the 25-yard line and then go with dribbling and passing to take a shot at the goal. There would effectively be four or five attackers against two defending players plus the goalkeeper. It would be much safer as the players wouldn’t be defending a powerful shot on the goal-line in a crowded area.

It could be adjusted in such a manner so as to ensure that it is as effective as a penalty corner without the danger, and would require many skills rather than one special defined skill that is so quick no one can see it! The other players would have to go to the other 25-yard line and would naturally run back to defend, so there would not be unlimited time to display skill.

Futsal emerged out of football and beach volleyball evolved from volleyball as attractive, fan-friendly variations. Why is hockey stuck in the past, reluctant to change into a fun-to-play, easy-to-follow sport?

Hockey has changed a lot, more than most games. Unfortunately, not enough of the changes have been done to what I suggested earlier.

Indoor hockey (fewer players, rebounds off sideboards) is faster to play, exciting to watch due to quicker ball-rotation, thrilling goals and the skills involved. Your view on the scope for popularising this variant (also called rink hockey) as hockey’s future?

I have no problem with these ideas but some of the things in indoor hockey, especially the dangerous corners, could be replaced by a shootout (meaning one-on-one against goalkeeper with a time limit, probably less than eight seconds).

India’s Premier Hockey League (PHL) experimented with four quarters, instead of the regulation two halves, leading to more off-the-field action for TV viewers. Your thoughts on making hockey more exciting as a spectacle in stadiums and on TV?

Having four quarters is good. Similarly, power plays instead of corners, less players on the field, one always in the attacking half etc. These things would make it harder to defend and therefore encourage teams to try to score more. Presently, all the big games are won by defence, and as the game is so crowded, the spectators and umpires cannot follow it.

Television assistance for umpires can help reduce controversy while making split-second decisions and decrease the chances of players questioning match officials. Why is hockey hell-bent on condoning human error for the sake of tradition?

I don’t think that’s so. Increasingly the third umpire has a place, especially in the big tournaments.

The Australian way of playing hockey is a mix of the Asian and European styles. How and when did the Aussie style evolve?

We learnt from both styles, and the hybrid evolved in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Every country will continue to develop things that they believe will be of advantage to them.

Hockeyroos brought glamour into Australian sport, the players dominated women’s hockey for a long time. How did the response from the Australian media and sponsors help in the success?

Hockeyroos went from being unknowns to well-known. Still largely the individuals were unknown except for some special ones like Alyson Annan (the best woman player of her time), Rechelle Hawkes (Olympic gold medallist in Seoul 1988, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000) and Nova Peris-Kneebone (Olympian and international athlete), who went on to win the 200m gold at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Is hockey considered a career option in Australia? Can the national players live off the game, that is, as professional club players, the way soccer players do?

No, it is not really a career option, but at least now while playing you can survive.

Matches featuring India or Pakistan attract maximum audiences in Europe, perhaps even in Australia, due to the skill factor. Do you agree? Do you feel there is a sense of urgency in the FIH to strengthen hockey in India and Pakistan for the sake of the sport’s survival?

It is because of the drama of the exotic rivalry (India versus Pakistan) as much as anything, and the fact that often the game is open and attacking. The FIH wants India to do well because that will be good for the game worldwide and help ensure its growth and development. In the same way they want USA to do well in the women’s game and China to continue improving.

* * * RIC FACTFILE

• Born on December 6, 1952, Subiaco, Western Australia.

• Played in 227 internationals for Australia between 1972 and 1988. Also represented his nation in four Olympic Games and four World Cups.

• Member of the Australian team which won the silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

• Led Australia to victory at the 1986 World Cup in London. Besides being the top-scorer, he was also named the ‘Player of the Tournament’.

• Coached the Australian women’s team — Hockeyroos — from 1993 up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. During his tenure, Australia won the Champion’s Trophy in 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999, the World Cup in 1994 and 1998, gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and the Commonwealth Games gold in Kuala Lumpur, 1998.

• Between 1972 and 1980, he played first-class cricket for Western Australia and led the team in 1979.

• A High Performance Consultant with Fremantle Dockers Football Club and High Performance Manager to New Zealand Cricket.

• A doctor of medicine and a Federal Member of Parliament for 10 years.

• Author of three books: The Coach — Managing for Success (2001), Staying At The Top (2002) and Shakespeare The Coach (2004).

* * *

RIC’S IMPRESSIONS His favourite moment against India as player

The repechage game at the 1976 Montreal Olympics where there were five periods of extra time. The match was decided on penalties and I took the final one! (Australia won 5-4 after the teams were locked 1-1 at full time). It was a game of great historical significance and tension; it decided the fate of the then World Champions.

On Indian hockey

I think it has been too rigid and proud in the past. I hope that is changing. India is quality one day, then mediocrity the next. They have been erratic.

On India’s Asia Cup win this year and the way forward

There is no one answer. I think you won that (Asia Cup) in 2003 beating Korea and Pakistan in the semifinal and final. Also that year you beat Australia, Germany and Spain. It was a much better year than this one! Then in 2004, the Olympics (Athens) were a disappointment. The result in Chennai was encouraging, but without other changes it is unlikely that what you describe is the answer. These things are multi-factorial.

On Indian hockey greats who impacted the game

The best coach was probably Balkishen Singh whose teams were very competitive and who seemed to be flexible in his approach. The really great players I saw were Ajitpal Singh (he had a dominating presence at centre-half and provided the coolness and class), Mohd. Shahid (a mesmerising master of ball control, feints and deception. It required such resources to control him that he allowed others space) and finally Dhanraj Pillay (great speed, passion, skill and longevity). Pillay was outstanding in the recent past.