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The Tribune: Real test for Indian hockey starts now

Real test for Indian hockey starts now

M.S.Unnikrisnan

The Indian hockey team are back in elite Olympic company, after a four-year hiatus, and they now look ahead at the London Olympics 2012, aiming for a medal. India’s standout performance in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the Dhyan Chand National Stadium here, winning all their six matches, which included an 8-1 whipping of France in the challenge round, was testimony to the fact that the game is back on its feet, and throbbing. From here on, the eight-time Olympic champions should race ahead, and not fall back. Even if they don’t win a medal in London, the attempt should be to finish among the top four, to avoid the rigmarole of playing the Olympic qualifiers again.

Bad coaches, vindictive administrators, whimsical team selection etc, had colluded to make the game slither into the abyss, after India failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics four years ago. And India were out of the Olympic fold, for the first time in 80 years. It was a no-win situation for Indian hockey when warring hockey bodies, indiscipline among the players, and coaches without control, all played havoc in the arduous task of lifting the game from the morass. Imagine, a player of Sandeep Singh’s utility and calibre was cast aside by coach Joachim Carvalho for the Olympic Qualifiers in Santiago (Chile) in 2008, and India expectedly lost to Britain, unable to cash in on the penalty corners. But another coach, A.K.Bansal, in a manner of speaking, resurrected Sandeep’s career when he was brought into play, though he was injured, against Belgium in the final of the Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament in Kuala Lumpur, 2009. Sandeep scored two vital goals to help India win 6-4 and annex the title, after a gap of 13 years.

The appointment of Michael Nobbs, the former Olympian from Australia, as the chief coach of the Indian hockey team seven months ago, almost instantly made the hockey graph rise, which has now culminated in India qualifying for the Olympics. The advantage of having a foreign coach like Nobbs is that he works on his own terms, and picks the players on merit, without bothering about other factors. His only agenda is to mould a winning combination from the best talent available, and in the process, if he has to sacrifice some top players like former captain Rajpal Singh and versatile forward Arjun Halappa for reasons of indiscipline and lack of fitness, so be it.

It is indeed a matter of pride for Haryana that two of India’s best players hail from the State. Sandeep Singh (Shahabad) and Sardar Singh (Sirsa) are world class players, who would play a decisive role in India’s Olympic campaign. Even the core group of the women’s hockey team belong to Shahabad, not to talk of the champion boxers and wrestlers Haryana has produced.

The end justifies the means, and Nobbs was a satisfied man at the end of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, though his task begins now. He has transformed the players like no other coach had done in the recent past - though his predecessor Jose Brasa did bring in some success - making them fit, fast and agile, to sustain their attacking game from start to finish. The tendency to lapse into errors, and getting tired at the fag end of a match to concede last-minute goals, is a thing of the past. The Indian team now play as a unit with precision passing, ball control and player movement. When a scoring chance materializes, there is always one player at the right spot to make the kill. “Nobbs is the best coach I have played under”, said Sandeep in an exclusive chat with The Tribune.

But the coach’s game and strategic planning will be stretched to the limit when India meet the big boys in the battle field. “In the last seven months, we have played against only two very good teams - Belgium and Pakistan. Our mettle will be tested when we play against teams like Australia, Germany, Holland, Spain, England etc. But the Olympic Qualifying Tournament has proved that the present Indian team are no pushovers”, observed Balbir Singh.

But Hockey India have planned many exposure trips for the hockey team before the Olympics, to make them battle fit. But Nobbs knows his job, and he has said the lessons learnt from the qualifiers would be assimilated in future coaching camps, to iron out the grey areas, particularly in defence. He has brought back attacking hockey, which has been India’s wont for long, effectively combining the tactics of the Orient and the Occident-implementing the Australian-style of attacking hockey with courage and conviction, and their counter attacks are as quick and deadly. But the Indian defence was also caught napping on a few occasions, when rivals counter-attacked, and this is an area where Nobbs would have work up an effective strategy to plug the loop-holes. For the tough and ready European and Australian would not give much leeway for the Indian forwards to manoeuvre, and they pack their defence with more men to prevent easy and soft goals.

Sunil, Shivendra Singh, Yuvraj Walmiki, Tushar Khandekar and Gurwinder Singh Chandi give solidity to the attacks, Sardar Singh is the roving mid-fielder and game-changer while Sandeep Singh is the goal-machine. Captain Bharat Chetri and V.R.Sreejesh have played true under the goal, and overall, India have effective players for all slots. And physical trainer David John has played no mean job in making the players battle-fit.

The good time is rolling in for Indian hockey, and hope they gain in strength from here on.