‘There has to be a change’

VIVEK BENDRE

Having failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics this year, India should now focus on the other major events ahead such as the World Cup, Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. “The team should utilise these events to prepare for the 2012 London Olympics,” says the former India captain, M. M. Somayya, in a chat with G. Viswanath.

Manipandey Somayya, the skipper of the Indian hockey team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is of the view that the mindset of the people connected with Indian hockey has to change in order to put the sport back on the rails. “Primarily, the National Championship has to be re-organised, focused training has to be imparted to the players in their formative years,” said Somayya while pointing out the shortcomings in Indian hockey.

Speaking to Sportstar, the three-time Olympian also suggested steps to help improve Indian hockey.

Excerpts from the interview:

Question: For the first time in 80 years there will be no new Indian hockey Olympian. It will be after a gap of eight years, from the previous Olympics in Athens in 2004, that India will be able to have another set of Olympians provided it qualifies for the London Games in 2012?

Answer: We were raised in an era where taking part in the Olympics was the ultimate honour. I was in Santiago (for the Olympic Qualifying tournament) and it was heartbreaking for all of us, more so for the players. It will rankle them. The charm and thrill of playing in the Olympics cannot be replaced by any other competition.

It’s going to be a tough and a long road to the London Olympics in 2012?

British players celebrate their victory in the final of the Olympic Qualifying tournament in Santiago, while a crestfallen Rajpal Singh sums up the mood in the Indian camp. The defeat was heartbreaking for both the players and the Indian hockey fans.-AP

India has to focus on the major events in 2010 — the World Cup for which we have already qualified, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. These are very big events. India has to build a good team, probably retaining the younger players from the current bunch. The team should be moulded into a match-winning unit; it should utilise the events in 2010 to prepare for the 2012 London Olympics. The Indian team should get into the habit of winning.

India won six Olympic gold medals from 1928 to 1956. Thereafter, it won the gold medal only in 1964 (Tokyo) and 1980 (Moscow). Would you say there has been a decline in Indian hockey, or is it that other nations have gone past India?

India won majority of its Olympic gold medals during the era of ‘grass’. Now it’s a new order as regards the surface and the rules of the game, and India needs to realise that the other countries are approaching the game in a more professional manner. India and Pakistan can no longer consider themselves as the super powers in hockey. Even a team like Japan, on its day, can defeat them. China, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia have trained and adapted well to the synthetic surface and the new rules. They have a strong focus on the game.

India has not won the Champions Trophy even once and the World Cup since 1975. The team won the Asian Games in 1966 and then only in 1998?

The skills required on synthetic surface like hitting, trapping, dribbling, slap shots and penalty corner conversions are different. We have to develop these skills accordingly. When hockey was played on grass, India used to enter competitions knowing well that it will win or at least reach the final because the players had good skills. It’s not the same on synthetic turf. Hockey is like football and playing tactics are advanced and somewhat complex. We have to perfect the skills required on synthetic surface to be on a par with the top teams in the world. The team also needs to address the psychological aspect. Most of our players come from lower middle-income group, and when they have no adequate exposure, the confidence does not come easily. This has been accentuated because India is on a losing streak. The psychological blow becomes too hard at such times. Our fundamentals and techniques on synthetic surface are good, but not as good as the top nations.

Lack of artificial turfs cannot be an excuse anymore. Don’t you think we have to play on synthetic surface at all levels?

In the 1980s we had just two or three synthetic turfs, but today we have many. There are also more than a dozen hockey academies in Delhi, Punjab and Bangalore, and in addition are the many sports hostels run by the State governments. But the quality of training at these academies should match international standards. We are simply training with the aim of playing for a club or securing a job. And the coaching is done by part-time players and NIS qualified coaches who do not keep abreast of the developments in world hockey.

There has to be a change. If Indian hockey has to improve, the trainees have to be coached by people with the knowledge of the latest techniques and tactics. They should also have access to modern infrastructure with a top class training centre and video analyses in order to make their training more meaningful in their formative years. If this does not happen we will only keep lamenting the fall in our standards.

Advanced training, tactics and technique and the psychological aspects cannot be imparted at the national level alone. If proper training is not imparted at the academies, the players’ growth will stagnate at the club level.

When a player gets employment, he should see it as the second stage of his career where he should develop and mature as a player.

What is the best way forward? Will awarding central contracts to the national players with a fee for every international match work?

It’s been said over and over again in the last 25 years. But things have not changed. Money will be a definite incentive to motivate the players, but it’s been like pouring water on a duck’s back. It really hurts. Financial security to the players, even though they are employed, is very necessary.

But the priority should be to provide specific training in order to improve the skills and harness the talents of the players at a young age.

Skills should be allowed to blossom to enable the growth of a player and for that opportunities have to be created. Then there has to be a realisation of self-worth in the budding players; they have to be ambitious and strive for higher goals. They should not be happy with small things in life.

What about India’s position in the International Hockey Federation (FIH)?

India needs to become a strong force in the FIH. No one should push India around. It has to happen, only then we can play a major part in the issues concerning rules, qualification for major events, planning competitions and nominating umpires. India has to be commercially strong in hockey so that it gets to host major tournaments in the world. India has not been a dominating force in the FIH for the last 30 years.