Sacking the coach wouldn’t help Indian hockey, it hasn’t in the past


Indian hockey has been here before: At a juncture where it has to choose between stability and chaos.

In the last decade alone, they’ve been at this crossroads multiple times: once, after the triumphant 2014 Asian Games campaign, then following an average Rio Olympics, and later, with a sub-par 2018 World Cup. Each time, it shot itself in the foot, opting for disruption by sacking the coach and setting into motion a sequence of events that ensured the team never moved forward.

One hopes they won’t go down the same route this time. For, coach Graham Reid has not just ensured India’s return to the Olympic podium after four decades, but also injected a dose of stability that Indian hockey had been craving for.

It was one of his prerequisites for accepting the India job in 2019. “In my initial letter that I wrote (to Hockey India), I said, ‘look, I believe this team needs some stability and consistency, even if it’s not fantastic, whatever… if it’s stable, then at least you give them an opportunity,” Reid had told The Indian Express before the World Cup, where his team suffered an embarrassing exit after losing to New Zealand in Sunday’s quarterfinal playoff.

It’s a different question if Reid – who looked sullen and lost for explanations after the defeat – chooses to continue or walk away. But Hockey India must know the coach isn’t the problem. If anything, Reid’s stint has proven that if a coach is given a long rope, he’s likely to make a bigger difference.

A change of coach right now would mean very little time for the new person to take control of the team ahead of September’s Asian Games, an Olympic qualifying tournament. Failure to win a gold medal in Hangzhou would then leave the team facing a pressure situation in the final qualifying tournament early next year. Needless to say, it would totally derail the team’s Paris 2024 campaign.

But all this doesn’t absolve Reid of his missteps.

In hindsight, there were enough hints that India weren’t ready for this World Cup – the team had struggled in the Asian Champions Trophy and Asia Cup, was outclassed by Australia at the Commonwealth Games as well as the test series and had mixed results in the Pro League.

Throughout this period, the team’s lack of Plan B was telling. India are an open book for other teams, who seem to have sorted out their counter-attacking style and adjust their play accordingly. Wales did that during the group-stage match, and New Zealand did it too.

Questions must also be asked about his team selection – it isn’t still communicated clearly why Simranjeet Singh, one of the stars of the Tokyo Games, has been completely sidelined; or why Manpreet Singh, who led the team ably in the last four years, was suddenly stripped of captaincy; or why Harmanpreet Singh was overburdened with three roles – of being the skipper, chief drag-flicker and key defender.

Reid said he’s tried 31 out of the 33 players in the core group in 2022. Largely, it was to identify his best combination for the World Cup. Clearly, it didn’t work out as he would have hoped.

Strong bench strength needed

This situation points to the quality of players India is producing. The hallmark of a great team is they have at least three options for every position. India, for most positions, don’t even have two decent options. In goal, Krishan Pathak has only recently staked a claim as PR Sreejesh’s able successor. In penalty corner options, there’s a solid dip in quality if Harmanpreet – despite him misfiring – isn’t taking the flicks.

In midfield, India could not even replace Hardik Singh, who, even though brilliant in the World Cup, is far from being a consistent world-class player. This was evident in the way India’s left flank got completely paralysed against New Zealand, who blocked the attacking channels from the right thus disrupting India’s free-flowing counterattacking game.

Indian players react after losing against New Zealand, in the 2023 Men’s FIH Hockey World Cup match, in Bhubaneswar, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. (PTI Photo)

There is a paucity of options in every position and there was a visible drop in quality each time the likes of Manpreet, Harmanpreet or Nilakanta Singh were off the field. And the fact that just one player from the 2021 Junior World Cup squad, Vivek Sagar Prasad, graduated into the senior team for this competition is another pointer that the quality of players being churned out isn’t necessarily of the highest quality.

After the test series against Australia, Reid was asked if the up-and-down results post-Tokyo were down to a lack of quality from the bench. “…that’s probably where we are,” he had said. “It doesn’t make too much difference with a team like Australia. Their depth is really quite good. That’s where you want to try and head to.”

It should be clear by now that India won’t head there until it develops a robust domestic structure. Among the top hockey nations, India is the only one to not have a league. Even New Zealand recently started a four-franchise competition which provides its players with a pathway to the national team – and the coaches and selectors a platform to scout talent.

The impact Hockey India League (HIL) had can’t be measured in words – the Olympic medal is evidence enough. In the absence of such a league, there’s opaqueness to team selection, a bit of arbitrariness even.

There’s the National Championship, of course. But a two-week-long competition is hardly an ideal platform. And as former India captain MM Somayya pointed out in his column in The Indian Express, the current format of the national championship – dividing it into four categories with players allowed to compete in just one – is flawed and has diluted the competition.

Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey has been in touch with the International Hockey Federation to find a window for the HIL. The former India captain made this one of his early priorities but the bigger challenge will be to find investors for the league, which was discontinued after the 2017 edition as the team owners did not find it sustainable financially.

But in one form or another, the return of the HIL feels like an absolute must for the long-term health of Indian hockey.

India Hockey head coach Graham Reid speaks at a press conference before the practice session ahead of the match against Wales during the FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup 2023, at Kalinga Hockey Stadium in Bhubaneswar, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (PTI Photo)

Drop in fitness levels

The HIL also exposed young Indian players to some of the best practices in world hockey and elevated the fitness levels of the players to previously unimaginable heights.

One of the characteristics of the men’s team in the last 10 years has been its fitness. The revolution started under former coach Michael Nobbs and physio David John in 2011 and peaked at Tokyo 2021, where India, despite playing eight matches in 13 days in extreme heat, never lost their tempo. The credit for that went to physical trainer Robin Arkell and it can be seen as Hockey India’s failure that they couldn’t hold on to him.

Under Arkell’s replacement, Mitch Pemberton, India have lost at least half a yard of their pace. The team starts matches slowly and has been unable to maintain the same energy levels in all four quarters. Against England, Wales and New Zealand, the Indian players were always a step behind their counterparts while chasing the ball, thus leaving their defence open to counterattacks.

If at all Hockey India decides to take a look at the role of the coaching staff, tough questions must be asked of the fitness trainer whose role assumes huge significance given how fast the sport is constantly becoming.

Wanted: Mental trainer

Belgium goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch, one of the modern-day greats of the game, neatly summed up what separates good teams from average ones. Speaking about the need to become psychologically strong, Vanasch said before India’s match against New Zealand: “If you see with all the big teams here, everyone is really the same. Technically, tactically, physically… But then mentally, you have to make that extra change.”

After the match, Reid made a similar prognosis. “As far as the drills or training are concerned, we do what all other teams do. I have been in this game for a long time and I know what other teams are doing. If there is anything necessary, a silver bullet out there, I do think that (is) mentally,” he said.

Unlike the women’s team, who had a psychologist attached to them during their national camp, the men’s team has never had a mental trainer with them, Reid said. For a team that repeatedly crumbles under pressure, that could be one of the keys to solve the puzzle.

“We need to do something different perhaps,” Reid said. “Following this, we will work on how we can get a mental coach involved. I think that is an important part of the future of the team.” It is up to Hockey India to ensure Reid remains a part of that future.

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Drying pipeline of talent?

31: Number of players Graham Reid said he tried in 2022 out of the 33 men in the core group. Yet, India seem to be lacking options from the bench in various positions.

1: Number of players from the 2021 Junior World Cup team who were part of this World Cup, another indication that the quality of players being produced isn’t up to desired levels.

Quote

“As far as the drills or training are concerned, we do what all other teams do. I have been in this game for a long time and I know what other teams are doing. If there is anything necessary, a silver bullet out there, I do think that (is) mentally.”

Graham Reid, on the need to have a mental trainer going forward

Quarterfinal line-up

Tuesday: 4.30pm: Australia vs Spain; 7pm: Belgium vs New Zealand

Wednesday: 4.30pm: Netherlands vs South Korea; 7pm: England vs Germany





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