When the Indian hockey team was camping in Delhi, I used to drop by at the National Stadium once in a while to watch them train. Then, just before they left for the Olympics, I happened to meet some players at the official send-off for the team in Delhi. They looked confident. They had reasons to be. The team had been playing some mesmerising hockey. So I was expecting them to finish in the top-four at the Rio Games. Alas, they lost to Belgium in Sunday’s quarterfinal.
If you get over the initial disappointment of being ousted, you realise this was a very encouraging performance. It shows they have moved on since the London Olympics debacle, where we finished 12th. In Rio, our team was outstanding in the group stage. They played the right brand of hockey after many years — fluent in attack, quick on counters and at the same time, maintaining a solid defensive structure.
This isn’t a one-off. The performance of the team has been very consistent since the London Games — be it at the Asian Games, Champions Trophy or Azlan Shah Cup. One of the reasons has been the continuity in the playing group — at least seven-eight players are the same, which means the core group of the team has remained untouched.
There has been a marked improvement in the overall understanding of international hockey among the players. Once you get more aware what the opposition is trying and their tactics, it automatically increases your confidence and changes outlook. Fitness wise, too, there has been a definite improvement.
A lot of the credit for this turnaround must go to chief coach Roelant Oltmans. He has been with the team since 2012, first as a high performance director and now a coach. Roelant has the knowledge of modern hockey and hasn’t been confusing or complex in his training methods. Once in a while, I speak with assistant coach Tushar Khandker. He says players find it easy to relate to Roelant compared to the previous coaches, who at times might have made things a bit complex for their liking.
Unlike the past, this wasn’t a one-or-two-man team; the game plan was not based on individuals. Roelant changed his players so frequently during the match — he made around 430 substitutions in five group stage games, according to a commentator. So he was playing to win a tournament. Otherwise, to win a game, you play the same player right through 60 minutes and by the time it’s time to play the next match, he is drained. Roelant was giving rest to his key players and making judicious changes.
That allowed him to be flexible in his gameplan. He always had tricks up his sleeve. Except for Sunday’s quarterfinal against Belgium, he had very fluid formation. He didn’t rely solely on 3-3-3-1, 4-4-2 or 5-3-2 formations. He would change the system in between the game, and from match to match. It showed the confidence he had in the players.
So there are plenty of positive takeaways from India’s performance in Rio. But it’s crucial we build on them and ensure the momentum isn’t lost.
The next logical step would be to retain people like Roelant. We shouldn’t change the coach like we have done in the past. Within the playing group, we need to take a close look at a few players who’ve had a long run. But since most players are still very young, I think we are placed well when it comes to the pool of players. Most importantly, we need to continue giving them international exposure. We have reached this level because the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and Hockey India are on good terms. Consequently, we are exposed to high-level competition almost 5-6 times a year.
I also feel Roelant can be used for designing a coaching system for the National Hockey Academy that’s being planned in Delhi. That can be a prototype for all grassroots academies in India to ensure there is uniformity in coaching. At the same time, his services can be used to educate the Indian coaches. If we do this, it will hold us in good stead and bring consistency in our performances.
The Rio Olympics isn’t a setback for us.
It gives reassurance that the team is heading in the right direction. We should use it as a springboard.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Rio Springboard’)
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