It’s not a coincidence that Indian hockey’s biggest triumph in 40 years came in front of empty stands.
The team, led by Manpreet Singh, ended decades of hurt by stepping onto the podium at the Tokyo Olympics, a tournament played without spectators due to the strict pandemic protocols.
As they return to big-time hockey for the first time since winning the Olympic bronze, the situation couldn’t be starker – India will play their opening match of the World Cup against Spain in front of what is set to be one of the biggest crowds at a hockey match in the country, at one of the biggest hockey stadiums in the world.
And if there was one thing that both coaches – India’s Graham Reid and Spain’s Max Caldas – would agree on the eve of the match, it was that such huge crowds aren’t always an advantage for the home team.
“It’s a dual-edged sword to have such a great crowd with you,” Reid said. Caldas, the Argentine in charge of Spain, added: “Handling the crowd, I think, goes both ways. You can see them as a motivation or it can be a threat.”
Caldas knows. As the coach of the Netherlands at the 2018 World Cup, his side first silenced the 15,000-strong Bhubaneswar crowd during the quarterfinals against India. And when the supporters found their voice to vociferously back their team, the Dutch took advantage of an Indian team that got carried away. It led to silly errors towards the end, leading to unnecessary cards, which eventually cost India a place in the semifinals.
It wasn’t the first time such a thing has happened. While matches in Bhubaneswar have unfailingly delivered an electrifying experience for a fan and visiting sides, they’ve often been a nightmare for Indian coaches. With the crowd egging them on each time they run forward, the players have shown a recurring tendency to chuck their game plan and play to the gallery.
And so, when the team begins its campaign at the majestic but imposing Birsa Munda Stadium in Rourkela – where a little more than 20,000 fans are expected to fill the stands – it’s not just the skills that’ll come in hand. It will also be about controlling the crowd.
If the buzz in the city is anything to go by, Rourkela, one of the cradles of Indian hockey, promises to be much louder and a lot more partisan than Bhubaneswar. And while it can be an ultimate motivating factor for a player, captain Harmanpreet Singh underlined the need to focus amidst all the noise. “It’s something we have talked amongst ourselves,” he said.
Reid reminisced about his playing days when Australia travelled to Pakistan where they played ‘in front of 50,000 people’. “The nice part about that was trying to keep the crowd silent. That’s what the opposition is going to do,” he said. “As far as pressure, for me, it is about staying in the moment. That’s what we talk a lot about, staying focused, staying on the next thing.”
For the coach, the two-minute break between quarters is essential to remind his players to ‘stay in the moment’, which might sound like a simple thing but isn’t so straightforward when playing a crucial World Cup match at home, in front of thousands, under lights. “It’s a matter of understanding and getting to that point where you can let it motivate you, as you say, but you don’t go over the top. So the performance arousal comes into play,” Reid said.
It’s been a topic that’s been deliberated during team meetings, with World Cuppers in India’s 18-man squad sharing their past experience with those who will make their tournament debut. “Communication is important,” Harmanpreet said. “But sometimes, amidst huge cheers, you are unable to do that and make adjustments to your game.”
Eventually, Harmanpreet said, it comes down to an individual’s awareness in handling the situation. “Sometimes you won’t be able to communicate,” he said. “In those situations, you should be aware of what is your responsibility, and what should be your next move.”
Noisy stadiums may be quite common for most international sports but not so much for hockey, where most stadiums across the world are modest in size and not giant bowls like the ones in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela. Especially if you are a visiting team playing against India.
“Very few games in your coaching and playing career have an atmosphere like that,” Shane McLeod, the coach of the World Cup-winning Belgian side, said. “When we scored a goal, that was the only time there was silence. When India scored or when they got the ball, there was this incredible rush, it’s almost like playing against 13 players.”
To prepare for situations like those, teams have gone to extreme lengths, including learning sign language, as the Netherlands and Belgium have done this time. “In those games, you can’t talk to each other so you have to use sign language and you have to find other ways to connect with each other.”