Still struggling for the winning formula

Another blow... crestfallen Indian players walk back after being beaten by Argentina in a match for places 7-8 in the Hero Honda FIH World Cup in New Delhi.-Pics: RAJEEV BHATT

The future of Indian hockey depends a lot on how well the team performs in the Commonwealth Games at home in October and subsequently the Asian Games in China. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

In Indian hockey, there is no dearth of resources. However, what it clearly lacks is the will to stick to the right path and move towards success with patience. Good results and development cannot be achieved in a hurry.

In Indian hockey there are many agencies trying to exercise their authority and many masters trying to dictate terms. The sport, invariably, is at their mercy.

The absence of a healthy federation to run the game in the country may not have come in the way of staging a gigantic event like the World Cup, but it surely does not help revive a game that has been on the sick bed for a long time.

We may hire the best of coaches, but we will not let them work in peace. We will boast of spending several crores of rupees in a record time, but will not provide the tools that a professional coach requires, even if they would cost only a small percentage of what we spend.

In such a scenario, it was futile to expect miracles from coach Jose Brasa in the nine months that he has spent with the Indian team, trying to fine-tune it to meet world standards. Like the legendary Ric Charlesworth of Australia, the Spaniard too had a high opinion of Indian hockey. He put up a brave front when one opponent after another kept pounding the host in the World Cup, but was eventually a sad man as Argentina also struck big blows to push India to the eighth place.

A semifinal spot may not have been realistic, but finishing in the top five was mandatory for India to compete with the elite teams of the world on a more regular basis. The Indian team seemed to have lost focus by going on a strike demanding payments. And the confusion over the naming of the Indian skipper not only led to an unpleasant situation but also did not help the cause in the run-up to the World Cup.

When India beat Pakistan in the first match, each player stood to gain Rs. three lakh as a token of appreciation. Honestly, India's World Cup finished then and there. After all, if you are happy with small things in life, you will never have the motivation to attain bigger goals.

Jose Brasa... swimming against the current.-

The eight-time Olympic champion continues to live in the past and does not understand the needs of modern hockey.

The World Cup in Delhi was India's first big tournament after the last World Cup in 2006 and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The team did not have enough matches or tournaments against world-class opposition in the run-up to the Hero Honda World Cup.

The Australian coach, Ric Charlesworth, said that his team would have loved to play matches with India, but his efforts to set up a series of Test matches over the last 14 months had failed. Despite its poor standing in world hockey, the top teams in the world still love to play against India.

At the end of the World Cup, Brasa provided a blue print to revive Indian hockey, but he has enough experience of the system to know how the authorities would act. He still hopes to find good talent along the way even though there is not much time left for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.

Ironically, we have the resources to conduct the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, but we do not understand the urgency to have regular National championships at all levels. We spend Rs. 260 crore to build a hockey stadium, but have 100 excuses for not spending Rs. 50 lakh towards the equipment that the coach wants for training.

Brasa's dreams were shattered when Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh, on whom he banked heavily, failed to deliver during the World Cup. The coach has agreed to opt for junior players if he finds that they are as good as the seniors. It pays to invest in youth.

After the matches against Australia and Spain, which the coach thought was beatable, Brasa realised that the Indian team did not have the speed or the experience to fight at that level. “We are still improving. We are going ‘upar,' (up)” Brasa said.

He continued to believe that India was on a par with Spain, the Olympic silver medallist. “We are not far away from Spain. If we play them again tomorrow, maybe we will win,” he said.

Brasa stressed that the trick was to keep training hard in the right manner and keep playing tournaments at the higher level.

Having visited the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) as far back as in 1984, Brasa said that the Indian team was not following those scientific training methods even today, despite his efforts to implement such a system.

At the World Cup, the Indian defence was in disarray, the forwards were unable to capitalise on the chances, while Sandeep Singh struggled to be the force that he was in the match against Pakistan in terms of converting penalty corners.

The German coach, Markus Weise, said that the structure of the sport in his country was a major strength. “There is only one player in the national team who has not come through the under-18, under-21 teams,” he said.

He added that there was no short cut to playing good hockey except to have good training methods and a strong domestic structure.

Weise also highlighted the fact that the motivation for his team to be world class had nothing to do with the patronage for the game or the lack of it at home. “Hockey doesn't matter in Germany. It is soccer and F1 that rule. All the other sports don't count. We can win whatever, but it will not change,” he said.

Well, in contrast, the future of Indian hockey depends a lot on how well the team performs in the Commonwealth Games at home in October and subsequently the Asian Games in China.

* * * THE REFERRAL SYSTEM NEEDS TO BE FINE-TUNED

It was an excellent system introduced to cut down the errors that could have a major impact on the result of a game. Yet, the `referral system' came in for a lot of criticism as it was not put to use properly at the World Cup in New Delhi recently.

Though the system was tried out in the past, it was for the first time that the `referrals' were used in a World Cup. In fact, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) had tested the system at the Champions Trophy in Melbourne last November and realised that it had led to correct decisions 80 per cent of the time. However, during the recent World Cup, some were highly critical of the referral system. And one of them was India's coach Jose Brasa.

Brasa found fault with the umpire for referring a decision to the `video umpire' when India was on a counter-attack against Australia. India scored two goals in that match while conceding five, and another goal by the host could have reduced the sting of the defeat. To that extent it was easy to understand the anguish of the Spaniard.

"The umpire stopped the game to do the referral.

The umpire must wait," said Brasa while explaining that the counter-attack should have been allowed to continue, after which the referral could have been made.

However, Brasa's argument went up in smoke during India's league match against South Africa, now well known for the reverted goal following a referral.

The question here is: how long should the umpire wait?

The rule says that the captain should ask for the referral as soon as possible. It does not give any time frame.

In the match against South Africa, the infringement happened when South Africa was on the attack and India had snatched the ball and was on a counter-attack.

"We were running back to defend, even as we tried to draw the attention of the umpire to protest and ask for a referral. Of course, it was difficult for the fans to understand. They didn't have a clue as to what was going on. There is definitely a flaw in the system. The umpire could have said it was too long after the incident, but we were lucky," observed the South African captain, Austin Smith.

Perhaps a captain should have a whistle which he could blow whenever he wants to ask for a `referral', or have a remote control that could set off a siren, drawing everyone's attention to his request for a referral!

Understandably, Brasa was shocked about losing a goal following a referral though he himself had deemed it right to let the play continue.

The coach found fault with the system, and not with the quality of umpiring. "We are not going to kill any umpire. It is not a question of being victimised. We think that it is a mistake," Brasa said.

With each team having just one referral, they do tend to be cautious as to when to call for it. All that is needed is clarity about the maximum time allowed before the video umpire is called into the picture.

Perhaps the FIH Executive Committee has already addressed the issue, and hopefully may come up with a more fool proof system the next time.

As Ric Charlesworth said, "Doing it properly is good for the game. Let us try and improve it."