Nandakumar Marar

The Australian legend Ric Charlesworth shares his thoughts

MUMBAI: “The best Indian hockey coach was probably Balkishen Singh, whose teams were very competitive and who seemed to be flexible in his approach,” said Australian hockey great Ric Charlesworth in an e-mail reply to a query about Indian hockey personalities who have left a lasting impact on the game.

The four-time Olympian is all set to take charge as Expert Coach-Technical Advisor of Indian hockey from December 2007.

The current chief coach of the Indian hockey team, Joaquim Carvalho, as well as the Technical Directors, M.M. Somaya and Merwyn Fernandes, played their best under Balkishen at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and have gone on record about the utility of the Indian’s coaching methods.

Charlesworth captained the Australian men’s hockey team at Los Angeles, guiding the squad to a fourth place finish. India ended fifth.

Unique style

Balkishen was later invited by Australia to work with women’s hockey, spoke at seminars and hockey clinics there, and influencing hockey thinkers down under to evolve a unique pattern based on the best of Asian and European techniques.

A hockey visionary, Balkishen’s twin centre-halves (attacking and defending) concept and emphasis on aggressive, physical midfielders found an echo in India’s Asia Cup 2007 victory under Carvalho.

The team management encouraged Sardara Singh, Bimal Lakra, Gurbaj Singh and Ignace Tirkey to use their physique as well as skills to gain midfield dominance.

Charlesworth, known for authority and control around the centreline, followed a similar philosophy while leading from the front in the 1986 World Cup in London. Australia went on to win the gold and its captain was named the ‘most outstanding player.’

He is the second foreigner assigned to work with Indian hockey at the national level. German Gerhard Rach’s tenure as India’s first foreign coach at the 2004 Athens Olympics was marked by strong differences with senior players like Dhanraj Pillay and Gagan Ajit Singh.

Asked whether the Indian players and coaches were receptive to change, he said: “I think it (Indian hockey) has been too rigid and proud in the past. I hope that is changing,” said Charlesworth, noted in coaching circles for success in World Cups, Olympic Games and Champions Trophy with the Hockeyroos, as the Australia women’s team is called.

Charlesworth, coming here as part of the ‘Promotion of Indian Hockey’ initiative from the world hockey Federation FIH, in collaboration with the Indian Hockey Federation, will be involved in putting a structure in place aimed at improving India’s performance at the 2010 World Cup and Commonwealth Games and the 2012 Olympic Games, as per a FIH press release.

“At the same time, he will be available to the present coaching staff for any advice and input they may need in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic qualifying tournament,” according to the official statement.

A long-time follower of Indian hockey, Charlesworth feels that the most fascinating and frustrating aspect of India is its quality performance one day and mediocrity the next. “It has been erratic,” mentioned Charlesworth.

The victory in this year’s Asia Cup was built on sustained and intense performances over a week, a deviation from the inconsistent past.

Better year

Asked whether India’s skill, aggression and goals in the Chennai event was the way forward, he explained: “There is no one answer. I think India won the 2003 Asia Cup beating Korea and Pakistan in the semifinal and final.

“That was a much better year than this one, as India beat Australia, Germany and Spain. However, the 2004 Olympics was a disappointment.

“The result in Chennai was encouraging but without other changes, it is unlikely that what you describe is the answer. These things depend on many factors.”

Balkishen is no more, but his wards in the Indian camp and an Aussie achiever with the highest respect for him will soon realise that they think alike while working towards making FIH’s dream of lifting Team India back to the world hockey’s elite come true.

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