On Thursday, 53 junior players will report at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) centre in Bangalore for the hockey team’s selection trials. But skill won’t be the sole criteria for them to sneak into the core group. Rather, the focus will be on speed. Hockey India’s high performance director David John has made sprint the priority for the players to make the cut for the 2020 Junior World Cup. It’s a departure from the past, when physical fitness of the players was often compromised, especially among the juniors.
However, for four days starting Thursday, John’s task will be to identify the fastest players, primarily midfielders and forwards, who may not necessarily be the most skillful. The players will be made to cover distances of 10m and 40m. A timing of 1.75 seconds for 10m will be considered ‘excellent’ and anything between 1.86 seconds to 1.95 seconds will be counted as ‘average.’
For 40m sprints, a timing of under 5.30 seconds will all but guarantee a berth in the junior team while 5.51 to 5.70 seconds will be seen as average. “As per our selection criteria we will look at three areas: sprints is the first followed by skill while ability to play the game is the third,” John told The Indian Express. “So someone can be extremely fast but not very skillful and still make the team. At the same time, someone who has less speed but is extremely skillful and has the ability to read the game well can also make the team.”
The timings, John said, have been decided keeping in mind the world average. Among the seniors, the fastest players at the moment is believed to be Australia’s Tom Craig, who covers 40m in approximately 4.05 seconds according to John. Among the Indian players, SV Sunil is the quickest, clocking 4.10 seconds while Kothajit Singh is a close second with best timing of 4.12 seconds.
Time trials have been made mandatory for junior women and sub-junior men and women teams as well. The criteria and timing differs for every position. For instance, strikers will need to be quickest as they have to fall back while defending and then burst forward in high intensity during counter-attacks. Few people understand an Indian player’s physique and habits as well as John does. The Australian was the team’s exercise physiologist and scientific adviser prior to London Olympics. His training methods and diet plans instigated a turnaround in the team’s approach towards fitness as Indian players shunned their a lethargic style that relied heavily on skills to become among the fittest hockey nations.
The rising fitness levels saw an improvement in the results as well. Although India are still not able to beat big teams in major tournaments, the team has become far more competitive internationally. The rankings have also gone up from 12 five years ago to sixth at present. The Junior World Cup win last year, too, was seen as a result of the team’s superior fitness condition. Not that the skills don’t matter. They do. But Indian junior team was by far the fittest among all the teams (at the World Cup), which is why they won,” John said.
The Australian added that the change in format of the game from two halves of 35 minutes to four quarters of 15 has made the game faster. “Speed in midfield and forward line is now essential. Most midfielders and strikers are only spending three to four minutes on the field on a given time,” John said. “But in those few minutes, they happen to work at very high speed before being rotated. So we need to look at our fastest players and those who can repeat their fast efforts over two and three minutes. It’s very essential to be able to compete successfully internationally at senior and junior level.”