‘There is no substitute for experience’

“The feeling was definitely a very good one. I was happy and excited because, to be honest, I had never really thought I would not coach again. I was always open to and always wanted to return to coaching the national team,” says Maharaj Kishan Kaushik in this interview with Uthra Ganesan.

It has not been easy being Maharaj Kishan Kaushik. A member of the victorious Indian hockey team at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he has also been a coach par excellence with both the Indian men’s and women’s sides.

His track record as a coach looks very impressive — an Asia Cup gold (2005) and silver (2009), a Commonwealth Games silver (2006) and an Asian Games bronze (2006) with the women and the 1998 Asian Games gold with the men. But every time he produced results, he was rudely shown the door by the administration, the last time in 2010 on charges of sexual misconduct.

Now, three years later, a desperate Hockey India has decided to turn back to the man with maximum credentials to pull the Indian men’s hockey out of the slump.

Ahead of joining the team’s preparatory camp for the coming Asia Cup, Kaushik spoke at length about his new role and how things have changed in the time he has been away from the sport he loves.

Question: What was your first reaction when you were approached with this offer to join the men’s coaching staff by Hockey India?

Answer: The feeling was definitely a very good one. I was happy and excited because, to be honest, I had never really thought I would not coach again. I was always open to and always wanted to return to coaching the national team, because I felt that I could contribute to the development of Indian hockey. I am happier because the same people who sent me out of Indian hockey have now called me back. So the feeling is very good.

We all know the circumstances in which you had to quit. When Narinder Batra approached you with this offer this time, were there any lingering hints of what had happened three years ago?

Obviously yes. It is not something that can simply be forgotten. He had some feelings and I also had some feelings, and I think that is but natural. But we spoke at length about it and it has all been cleared now. There is no rancour or bad blood.

Have you moved on from what happened three years ago? And do you think the administration too has moved on, given that you have been recalled?

There was no truth in what had been alleged then and so there was nothing to think about getting over with. This is what I said then and this is what I have always maintained. Yes some foul play was done and that should not happen to anyone again, ever. For that, precautions have to be taken and especially the management has to be extra careful and take care of that.

As for the administration, I think if they have called me back, then they also have decided to leave it behind. If you have to work together, you have to get over and go beyond all this.

The original proposal for you was to assist the junior team but now you have to help the senior team.

My personal preference has always been with the senior team. It’s not that I consider the junior team below my dignity or anything but I feel I work better with the senior team. Also, the current junior team I think already has some good minds — the South African coach, Gregg Clark, is already in charge and he has Baljit Singh Saini assisting him, so that is taken care of. But my preference has always been to work with the senior team.

You are coming back to coaching after three years and to men’s hockey after almost 15 years. How much do you think the sport has changed in all these years?

A lot, a lot. There have been a lot of changes, the sport has changed completely. I admit that 15 years is a very long time in any field. I am coming back to be associated with men’s hockey which is always in the spotlight so there is pressure. But most of us — and especially me — keep watching and observing and following the changes that keep happening across the world. Whether in coaching or management, it is important because you cannot coach any team — not just the national team or the men’s team — if you don’t know the latest developments in technology. Also, you need to always know the calibre of both the opponents and the opposition coaches, so I have always been in touch with the latest developments, both in terms of the software used and in following the workings and system of other teams and their coaches — it is important else you cannot plan for your own team.

There is a feeling that, the younger you are, the more you are in touch with technology. Given that you are not exactly young or considered tech-savvy enough, do you think you will be under extra pressure in modern hockey?

Well, yes, that is true — I am not exactly young! But that is only in comparison to the younger coaches coming up at the world level today. It is good that youngsters are turning to coaching and becoming successful. There are a lot of young coaches in India also who are coming up well and doing a good job with the latest software. At the same time, there is no substitute for experience. If you look at any of the top teams in the world, whether Germany or Australia or Holland or any other team that is doing well, they all have young people in the coaching staff but also use their experienced people for guidance. It is the experienced minds that prepare their programmes and work as observers and consultants, which helps the teams.

During the Hockey World League Round 3 (in Rotterdam), I noticed that the Dutch team was having their previous coach sitting with the team and guiding them constantly — such things definitely help in planning. So age certainly is not a criterion to be a good coach.

If we talk about the coaching methodology itself, how much has it changed in the last few years?

Very much. In fact, it’s not just the methodology or technology but the rules themselves have changed a lot. Unfortunately, in terms of using the latest developments, we in Asia have lagged behind. I will not include Japan or Korea in this because they have always kept pace with the latest developments but in India, Pakistan and Malaysia, we have been left behind in our very approach to the way the sport has developed.

The hockey officials in our country should understand the value of things that are required and sought by the national coach. That should be provided on a priority basis. If that is available, which I believe has been happening for the past couple of years, I think it will help. But there is no doubt there have been vast changes in modern hockey and we are way behind.

Where exactly is your role in the present set-up?

I am very clear about my duties. I have to assist the chief coach and I will do all I can to help him in his job. I am part of the staff, one of the coaches assisting the chief coach — whosoever it may be — and whatever knowledge I have of the team, the players and the training from my experiences with the national team, I will share it with the coach.

The situation is less than ideal at the moment, given that Michael Nobbs has been sacked. Do you think it will have any impact on the team or your working?

I did not have a chance to interact with Michael Nobbs because he has been in Australia. It definitely is not the smoothest start one would expect but I have been in touch with Roelant Oltmans (the High Performance Director temporarily in charge of the team) and we have discussed certain ideas. I don’t think there will be any problems.

You have always been a proponent of aggressive Asian style of hockey while Oltmans is typically Dutch, with emphasis on defensive play. Do you think there will be a clash of ideas?

No I don’t think there will be any conflict. Difference of opinions will always remain between people but a conflict because of that never solves any problem. The main target for all the coaches would be, rather should be, that the team performs well. Whatever is the best for the team should be done.

Yes I admit the differences, as you said, will be there — the coaching styles are different, mentalities are different, thought processes are different. We don’t know who the new chief coach will be… as and when he comes… but instead of highlighting the differences, the similarities should be combined for the best of the team.

Do you think that being an Indian coach and having successfully managed players with vastly different and volatile personalities like Dhanraj Pillay and Ashish Ballal in the past, you have an advantage over the others?

Yes, being an Indian I do have that advantage. I know the psychology of the players and I also understand the thinking and working of officials and people who are dominating the sport. But I feel that could actually be very helpful when trying to co-ordinate and give the best possible results.

What immediate changes do you believe should be made to this team to get results?

Everyone knows how we have not been able to qualify for the World Cup from the last tournament. And so that should be the first priority. There are definitely some things that need to be corrected, I think it is possible and within our reach. The team work is there but if there have been problems in planning and we have lost games in the defence, then we have to work a lot on improving that.

Will you also be involved in team selection?

No. Nobody has consulted me on that and given that I am only assisting the chief coach, I think he will take care of that. Of course, I will give my inputs and suggestions to him and hopefully it will be followed for the benefit of the team and if our target is to be successful, then it would be good if they are accepted.

The last time you were in charge of the men’s team, we won the Asian Games after 32 years. Are you looking at starting this new innings as triumphantly, this time with the Asia Cup?

The Asian Games was not my individual victory. That was a result of complete team work and the title was won because of everyone in the team. From the top in the federation to the players, captain Dhanraj Pillay and every senior and junior player in the squad contributed to the victory, with a little contribution from me as well.

As for the present assignment, it depends — if we have the same kind of team work and the same single-minded approach to competition and the goal then it is very much possible.

No one can predict what the future holds or what will happen in any competition. But we can think of positive things in the camps and work as a single unit and try and win the Asia Cup. But we need to know the other teams’ preparations as well, analyse their strengths and weaknesses and prepare accordingly. As I said before, it is in our reach but it is a very tough task and we really have to work very hard.

Finally, are you open to coaching a women’s side again?

As a coach, my job is coaching and why should I say no to anything? At the same time, things that happened three years back should not happen to any coach ever again and the management has to ensure that, only then will I or any coach think of taking up such a responsibility. But, at the moment, I am attached to the men’s team so I wish to concentrate only on that. The question about women doesn’t arise.