CHENNAI: When Erno Rubik invented his eponymous cube, he had little idea how to solve it. No matter which way he flipped the blocks, the colours seemed only to get more mixed up. The plight of Indian hockey, more often than not, is like the cube’s inventor. Something invariably gets messed up somewhere.
So when the Indian Hockey Federation was deposed as the national game’s apex governing body, the Sports Authority of India began to flex muscles, and when finally they were calmed, Hockey India suddenly turned egoistic. The direct victims of this power wrangle, apart from the game itself, were a few fine coaches — from Joaquim Carvalho to Terry Walsh — all of whom left disgruntled, often midway through studies in progress.
Naturally, the players are left as frustrated as wide eyed. When a new coach comes, he arrives with his trusted crew of support staff, convictions and strategies. So the players have to familiarise not just with coaches, but their assistants, physios, trainers, methods, strategies, roles and even priorities. And by the time they get accustomed, the incumbent is dumped and a new one assumes charge.
For a player, this can be frustrating. Take for instance Sardar Singh, India’s doubtless 21st century metronome. He began as an exuberant winger, more like a supporting striker in football, all pace and dribbles under Carvalho, before he was deployed as a screen for the defenders, by Spaniard Jose Brasa. Jack Nobbs, a fine visionary, welded him into a deep-lying playmaker. Walsh improvised further, giving him allowance to switch roles in the midfield. That Sardar seamlessly blended into the roles is a testimony to his aptitude as well as selflessness.
The tacticians initiated not just positional tweaks, but philosophical overhaul too. When Brasa tried to inject a defensive brand of hockey, senior players felt edgy. “All these years, Indian players were taught to be attacking. The priority is to score and not stop goals. Suddenly when they were asked to play defensively, they struggled and seemed not to enjoy their game,” reflected former skipper Ajitpal Singh.
Sardar, worldly-wise as he is, believes it’s the inescapable fate of a modern-day player. “Of course, every coach has his methods and we have to adjust and adapt to everything. The key is to take this as a challenge and work towards achieving the common goal of winning matches for the country. This is what we do as professionals,” he said.
Worse than these ideological clashes is the interlude between the predecessor’s departure and the successor’s arrival. There is a sudden strain of cynicism and uncertainty and the players feel like a scattered herd of sheep without a shepherd. But Sardar allays the fears, “Walsh was a wonderful coach. It was a period we enjoyed and of course learnt a lot. But we’re training the same way we did under him. (Roelant) Oltmans has also been around for some time and that’s helping us.”
The optimism accrues as much as from the composed presence of Oltmans, a sharp strategist himself, as the recent string of results. Since the World Cup, India have lost only four of their last 16 matches (thrice to Australia), won gold in Asian Games, qualified for the Rio Olympics and beaten the world champions 3-1 Down Under, although against an experimental squad. “The morale is high as we had a good year. But more than the results, it’s the way we’ve played that makes me happy. We’ve managed to not repeat our mistakes, like conceding soft goals and late goals. Also, some of the youngsters are maturing very fast. However, we’ve to improve in a lot of aspects,” said the Dutchman.
One of the concerns will be penalty-corner conversion. Whereas they are like bounty hunters against mediocre teams, their one-dimensionality has been exposed by better-organised defences, and would be tested against European powerhouses. As bothersome has been the sloppy finishing of forwards, whose penetrative skills have improved. CT offers a further reality check, as to whether the recent results are a tangible proof of progress or another fleeting false start.
As for Rubik, he refused to believe it couldn’t be solved and after about a month, he could solve the puzzle at will. As for Indian hockey, the puzzles seem only to get more cryptic.