Yelps score over booming barks

A tense scene from the final.-PICS: PTI

The ability to work with diversity and use it as strength was what set the two finalists apart from the rest, writes Uthra Ganesan.

Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.

— Oscar Wilde

Every year, hundreds of youngsters who hope to play big-time hockey in India turn up at the National Stadium in New Delhi for trials to get into the government-run academy there. Skill is the only criterion for selection, but the real work for Chief Coach Ajay Kumar Bansal starts after that. With trainees from the tribal hinterlands of Orissa who have hardly been to school to convent-educated Anglo-Indians of Mumbai, he knows what it takes to make them play as a team.

Gregg Clark has been in charge of the South African men’s hockey team for about six years now. He has a pool of players equal to a club side in numbers to choose from, and then there are the country’s rules for ‘racial inclusiveness’ since the end of apartheid which, in other words, means he doesn’t always have the best 11 or 15 in the country at his disposal. And yet, the South Africans are known as prickly customers in international hockey, to be taken lightly at your own risk.

On February 10, when Germany’s Moritz Fuerste shook hands with Sardar Singh before the final of the inaugural Hockey India League in front of a screaming 8000-plus fans squeezed into a stadium built for 5000, the two men on the sidelines would have nodded in agreement and pride at what Oscar Wilde had said long ago.

Bansal, coach of table-topper Delhi Waveriders, and Clark, in-charge of the home favourite Ranchi Rhinos, took their respective teams to the title clash of the richest professional hockey league in the world, and it all came down to experience.

“I am not a better coach or a bigger name than the others in the fray. I am only the man who simply did what he has always done — making the biggest and the smallest player in his team play as equals on the field,” says Bansal, satisfied and content despite his team finishing runner-up.

Ranchi Rhinos celebrates with the HIL Trophy.-

That ability to work with diversity and use it as strength was what set the two finalists apart from the rest. In a coaching field dotted with names like Australians Richard Charlesworth and Barry Dancer and Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, the Indian Bansal and the South African Clark were nobodies. Their anonymity, however, was their strength.

“I don’t know if it was deliberate but I guess yes, it did contribute a lot and helped us to perform well,” admits Clark, though he isn’t too keen on talking about restrictions back home, many of which he has no say in. “We got complete support from the team owners here but we are used to working under constraints. We had a great team so it was easy, but handling players from nine different countries is no joke. So yes, subconsciously, coming from a diverse cultural background helped develop an understanding,” he says.

Bansal had the further motivation of proving his worth in an international field, being the only Indian coach. Not only that, his entire support staff was Indian — including former internationals Dhanajay Mahadik and Sabu Varkey as coaches, Ajitpal Singh as team manager and even the masseur, Ram Kishen.

“We did not have much time together before the league started. By January 5, everyone had assembled in Delhi and I observed them for a couple of days. The franchise owners had arranged the stay and breakfast for the players and decided to give everyone $50 per day as pocket allowance for lunch and dinner, which meant the players hardly spent time outside the field with each other. My only demand from the franchise was to make sure all the meals were taken together. A week later, I assure you, every player knew more personal details about others than they would have ever done otherwise,” Bansal says, explaining how breaking the ice like this was very important to build team spirit.

Clark did something similar. “My first team meeting was not about hockey at all. It was all about every player introducing himself and adding one personal detail that no one knew. I have not proved any point.

“Coaches like Charlesworth and Oltmans were and remain far superior, they have achieved a lot more than I have done. But it does feel satisfying to finish on top in a league with such renowned names.

“I only hope to take back from my experiences here and hope they help me with whatever team I associate in future,” Clark insists. The duo also proved that working without a streamlined system helps sometimes.