Business as usual?

Sardar Singh dribbles through the Pakistani defence at the Asian Games in Incheon. Playing for India gives Sardar so much joy.

Sardar Singh dribbles through the Pakistani defence at the Asian Games in Incheon. Playing for India gives Sardar so much joy.  


A look at where Indian hockey is – and where it’s headed

European geopolitics and its intrigues are a world away from Indian sport. And yet, when Winston Churchill said, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” referring to Russia, he could well have been speaking of Indian hockey.

Such is the continued bewilderment among fans of the sport that nothing shocks them anymore. The good and the bad are taken with equanimity. A medal is celebrated, a random, abrupt change of coach discussed, and the selection (or non-selection) of a player wondered at – for precisely 24 hours. Then, it’s business as usual.

Not surprisingly, the summary dismissal of Roelant Oltmans as the national men’s coach a fortnight ago received the same treatment. “I was prepared to be sacked from day one,” Oltmans has said, and it sounds routine. In the midst of all this, however, the bigger questions on the way ahead have been rendered to the background.

Scrutinising the numbers

The numbers 23 and six have been used frequently. The first the number of coaches hired and fired in as many years, and the second the number of foreign coaches who fell foul of the Indian system. The figures, however, are slightly different, and not as unflattering. The Indian federation – whether the erstwhile Indian Hockey Federation or the incumbent Hockey India – has actually had 21 coaches in the past 37 years, since the 1980 Olympics, though some of them have had multiple stints (V. Baskaran) and some interim charge for a few months (Jagbir Singh).

Since 2009, however, when Hockey India first took formal shape (government recognition was still a year away), there have only been foreigners at the helm. Most had a genuine affection for and interest in Indian hockey. People like Terry Walsh and Jose Brasa had grown up watching or playing against India at its best and were attracted to it. Others, like Oltmans, were professionals who believed they could take the team back to the top. All suffered the same fate.

Their levels of success varied. Michael Nobbs got gold at the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy, but finished last at the London Olympics less than a year later. Terry Walsh helped win an Asian Games gold after 16 years, in 2014, but could only manage ninth place at the World Cup the same year. Jose Brasa had gone one better in the 2010 edition, but had faltered in the Asiad final. None, barring Oltmans, survived more than two years (Paul van Ass didn’t even complete six months). In this context, it would be prudent to temper expectations, tone down the rhetoric both for and against the administration, and take a good, hard look at the road ahead.

Whither the players?

The players have gone about their job with nonchalant detachment to the man in charge. Every coach brought his style and the team adjusted. To its credit, Hockey India has largely had a ‘player first’ attitude, which translates into giving them the best possible infrastructure and competition. The fitness levels have improved enormously, and the current team undoubtedly is among the fittest in the world.

Indian hockey has, in these years, flexed its financial muscle on the world stage. It resulted in major tournaments being hosted here with regularity – two World Cups (2018 will be the second in eight years), two Hockey World League Finals and two Junior World Cups – which gave players much needed exposure and the sport a fillip. The Hockey India League brought in further money and some glamour. All of this aided the slow, painful climb back to the top echelon.

Not everything is hunky-dory, though. The officialdom might have improved in some regards – it’s more open to suggestions and freer with finances – but the tendency of brooking no opposition doesn’t appear to have changed.

Free fall

Things have been in a free fall since the beginning of 2017. It’s amazing how quickly matters can deteriorate. Around this time last year, India was coming to terms with the disappointment of the Olympics, but was also hopeful after a historic silver at the Champions Trophy and confident of winning the Asian Champions Trophy (which it did). The icing on the cake was the triumph at the Junior World Cup.

This year began with the failure to reach the final of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and disappointment at the HWL Round 3. The team pulled out of the biggest gamble in world hockey, the ambitious Pro Hockey League, starting 2019. It declared there would be no HIL in 2018. It brought on board a scientific advisor (David John) as its High Performance Director. It sacked its coach, one of the biggest names in the business, for an apparent lack of results. And replaced him with the women’s coach (Sjoerd Marijne) without any formal process despite having invited applications.

It was unfair and, more importantly, the timing was all wrong. HI has now claimed that questions had been raised soon after the Olympics, but it still went ahead and contracted Oltmans till 2020. This year was always expected to be a trial and error season, given the influx of juniors, the phasing out of some seniors and the experimentation with tactics. But the huge 24-member committee that sat on judgement sought immediate results, without explaining what had changed in a year.

Ironically, these short-term results will be even more difficult now. With a packed calendar that starts with the Asia Cup next month and continues till December 2018, with only three to four months between major tournaments, Marijne has little time to know, understand and prepare the team. Given the level India is at, the Asia Cup should not be a big concern but anything less than a title there, especially after the recent losses to Malaysia, would raise serious questions about the team’s claims of being the best in the continent. It might also kick off the countdown to Marijne’s ouster, as the later tests will only be tougher.

Marijne has learnt fast, declaring he is more result-oriented and less about the long-term process, saying what the bosses perhaps want to hear. He has also spoken about being player-driven, something that has been espoused by HPD David John as well. The players know it’s up to them now to perform and get the results regardless of who sits on the bench. As it always has been in Indian hockey. Business as usual.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 7:25:36 PM |

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