Though the Indian mens hockey team failed to win any of their four games at the Olympic test event in London,a competition in which they faced Olympic champions Germany and World champions Australia in addition to hosts Great Britain,coach Michael Nobbs believes the team has gained after playing against the best. In an interview to The Indian Express,the Australian-born coach talks about his toughest assignment so far. Excerpts:
How would you sum up the Olympic test event?
* It has been a learning experience. Its the first time we played teams of such high calibre in the past one year or so. The last game we played before this was the Olympic qualifiers final against France (ranked No.18). So we were prepared for a thrashing. After all,we were up against the hosts,the reigning Olympic champions and the World champions all ranked in the top-five.
Your opinion on the new blue turf at the Riverside the Olympic venue?
* The surface,the weather and the conditions were challenging. It was raining almost continuously and the temperatures did not cross 10°C. As for the new turf,we have nicknamed it the Blue Monster. The ball slips away while going one way and refuses to move the other way. Running on it is tough and we have lost Gurvinder Singh Chandi (hamstring) for at least three weeks.
The other three teams at the Olympic test event have been training on similar surfaces for more than six months and they are still complaining. We played on the new blue surface for the first time. We need to play a lot more on the surface ahead of the Olympics.
Has the Indian team met the pre-tournament objectives?
* We were up not only against top teams but also three teams that play three distinct styles of hockey. Australia play an open game with zonal markings,Germany are typically European with man-to-man marking and with clockwork precision at that,while Britain have developed a hybrid style that includes both. So we couldnt have asked for better preparations. As for the expectations,everyone the team management and the players knew what they were getting into before the tour so the losses havent dampened our spirit. We have been able to hold our own in patches.
On the flip side,we have been making a few unforced errors,especially in ball handling,something that we do not do.
Who are the players who have improved the most on this tour?
* It is difficult to pick one or two players in a team game. But having said that,the likes of Sardar Singh and SV Sunil have been as outstanding as always. PR Sreejesh has been very good under the bar though I would have liked to test Bharat Chhetri a bit more but he has been down with flu. Amongst the new lot,however,Kothajit has been a revelation at this level.
Drag-flick expert Sandeep Singh was not used too often. What was the thinking behind this move?
* Its not that we deliberately overplayed or underplayed any player. We tried to win every game but not at the cost of exhausting any player or even exploring all possible combinations or options. This was a test event and we treated it as such.
What plans for the Azlan Shah tournament,where all except Malaysia are Olympic-bound teams two of them being in Indias group at London?
* In fact,Germany are also in Indias group,so in that sense the match against them at the test event was the most important. As for the Azlan Shah,we will be looking at using the different patterns that we have observed at the test event,and work out our own style and pattern and try and execute them.
Before the test event,you were optimistic of a top-six finish at the Olympics. Are you still confident?
* Absolutely. We have been studying the teams performances on this tour and we have realised that we are not too far off the mark. Of course,this team is far from being a finished product. There is a lot more work still to be done before we can think of being on top of the world. But we are getting there.