‘The players make a coach successful, not the other way round’

Dhanraj Pillay...calling spade a spade.-SANDEEP SAXENA

“If you look at Indian hockey, Dhyan Chand was produced by Indian coaches, so were great players like Mohammed Shahid, Merwyn Fernandes, Pargat Singh and Dilip Tirkey. We don’t need a foreign coach,” says former India forward Dhanraj Pillay in a chat with Nandakumar Marar.

It was intriguing to see Dhanraj Pillay in the dugout during the Hockey India National Championship as the coach of Air India.

His eyes tracked he ball and his body changed direction, in step with the action on the field.

Air India operated like a well-drilled unit against Punjab in the final, shifting from a multi-layered defence to launch precise attacks. After guiding his team to a 6-2 victory in the final, the hockey icon of yesteryear spoke to Sportstar on a variety of topics, ranging from India’s preference for foreign coaches to his own run-ins with national coaches in the past and lessons learnt in the present about managing players.


Question: Talking of foreign coaches for India, the choices cannot get better than the personnel from Australia and the Netherlands. Both the nations dominate the game and keep producing world-class players. Do you agree that to be the best, you have to learn from the best?

Answer: I agree about learning from the best. Coaches such as Ric Charlesworth from Australia, Hans Jorritsma from the Netherlands, who coached Pakistan in the 1994 World Cup, and Germany’s Paul Lissek will make a difference. If India can take their services, we can dream of becoming a hockey power in future.

I want to emphasise that without players’ support for the national coach, no team can hope to become an Olympic or World champion. Roelant Oltmans, presently appointed the High Performance Director by Hockey India, was in charge of Uttar Pradesh Wizards in the Hockey India League. He came with a huge reputation of coaching in the Netherlands, having won major hockey honours such as the Olympics, World Championships and the European leagues. Oltmans was good for Holland because some of the greatest hockey players in the world represented them during his tenure. He could not deliver results as the coach of Uttar Pradesh Wizards, or maybe guide the team to first or second place in keeping with his coaching reputation. We struggled to finish third in the Hockey India League. I was part of the team management and saw him from close. Unless you have the players on your side, good results won’t happen. The players make a coach successful, not the other way round.

Indian hockey is now managed by foreigners. Apart from Oltmans, we have Michael Nobbs of Australia as the chief coach of the men’s team, Neil Hawgood of Australia as the chief coach of the women’s team and Gregg Clark of South Africa as the junior national coach . What value additions do they bring to Indian hockey?

Coaches for men, women and juniors squads, and now even the support staff such as trainers, are foreigners. I can identify at least five Indian trainers who are among the best in the profession. Pradip Dutta, with whom I worked during my days with the Indian team and who is a trainer for the Indian football team now, is one of them.

If you look at Indian hockey, Dhyan Chand was produced by Indian coaches, so were great players like Mohammed Shahid, Merwyn Fernandes, Pargat Singh and Dilip Tirkey. We don’t need a foreign coach. It has been my stand from day one and I will stick to it.

Nations and clubs employing foreign coaches is common in world sport. The England football team had Fabio Capello of Italy as coach. Bayern Munich has signed up Pep Guardiola of Spain. The Indian cricket team had Gary Kirsten of South Africa…

Australia, Holland and Germany dominate hockey, but foreign coaches have not brought Indian hockey the expected results. From the 2004 Athens Olympics under Gerard Rach of Germany to the recent London Olympics under Nobbs, our performances did not come anywhere close to the achievements of the Indian cricket team under Kirsten. We finished 12th in London, but nothing happened to the coach.

Any Indian coach, you feel, is capable of taking over the national squad?

Air India is the national champion and I am the chief coach, so why not me? In 1989, when Mumbai won the Senior Nationals in Gwalior, the champion team’s coach, Cedric D’Souza, was given the chance to coach the Indian team. The trend continued with Rajinder Singh Sr., Rajinder Singh Jr., A. K. Bansal and Harinder Singh.

During your playing career, you reportedly had strong differences with national coaches like Cedric D’Souza, Vasudevan Baskaran and Rajinder Singh. How will you handle awkward situations when seniors question your coaching or juniors feel your methods are outdated?

In my playing days, watching videos for more than 20 minutes was not possible for me; I could not take coaches’ lectures stretching beyond 30 minutes. I would tell the coach to allow the players recovery time. I spoke my mind. Over the years, I learnt a lot by watching India coaches Joaquim Carvalho, Balkishen Singh, M. K. Kaushik and Rajinder Singh Sr. I realised how each one was different in his own way. I can now see the bigger picture. The situation now is such that I have to listen to the boys, try to take everybody along because their views count. The coach can give off his best when the players under his charge are ready to go all out for him. I also firmly believe that Indian coaches should be paid on par with foreign coaches, who are paid handsomely to do the job.

Explain how coaching Air India in the National Championship qualifies you for the job of the National coach?

My coaching is very simple; I do not use a laptop and I don’t do things our players can’t understand. I analyse the capabilities of juniors and seniors. Most of the seniors delivered for Air India and Punjab at the Pune Nationals. We won due to a mix of experienced and young talents. Arjun Halappa, Adrian D’Souza, Vikram Pillay, V. S. Vinay and Prabodh Tirkey, all internationals, did what was expected of them. Air India’s senior-most player, Sameer Dad, had an outstanding tournament and the junior-most, Affan Yousuf, was named the ‘Best Player’. Handling players is the most important quality a coach should have. All are stars in Air India and they need to be handled carefully.

Gregg Clark, in his capacity as the India junior coach, was present in the stands during the Nationals. How useful will the South African’s inputs be for talent spotting?

Coming to talent spotting, Affan was in the India junior camp, but was dropped when the juniors were sent on a tour to Holland. He should have been there, instead of becoming available to represent Air India in the Senior Nationals. I hope Mr. Clark has changed his mind about Affan’s potential after seeing the junior player excel against the seniors in the Nationals. Junior India player Arman Qureshi was among the best performers in Pune. India’s best should get the chance — whether experienced or not. The selection of players should not be affected by ego clashes between officials.