Paul van Ass was hoping that Azlan Shah would be the ice-breaker he would need to understand the players better. It’s a moody, unpredictable bunch, after all. Always been one. How else would you explain losing to Malaysia on one day and then humbling world champions Australia the next? It’s a recurring trend, one that has haunted the present Indian team and past ones.
“Human beings can’t perform at the same level every day. It happens in sport,” Van Ass says in defence of his players.
Having spent a week with the players in Malaysia, the Dutchman says he has got ‘valuable information’ about the team, that will help in preparing the road map for the future.
The performances have surprised him, in a good way. Off the field, the team’s attitude has impressed Van Ass. On it, however, problems remain. Concentration and proactivity when not in possession rank high on his priority list.
But there are graver issues he will have to deal with. Defence being one of them. For a major part of the last 12 months, India’s backline worries have gone unheeded owing largely to the team’s credible performances and heroics of goalkeeper PR Sreejesh.
But at the Azlan Shah it showed up and it was clear that in order to progress, weaknesses need to be addressed.
Throughout the tournament, India were guilty of conceding soft, sloppy goals at critical junctures. Once again, it’s an old trend which has returned to haunt India several times. VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh, the two regular sweepers, are prone to errors. Gurbaj Singh holds the right with authority but, overall, issues remain.
Young Gurjinder Singh looked sturdy in the Champions Trophy but he was surprisingly omitted from the squad for the Azlan Shah Cup.
Van Ass, though, believes the issue doesn’t begin or end with the quality of defenders. “Defence is a total team performance, not just the defenders. We need to get our positions right. We have to work on our defence under pressure,” the former Holland coach says.
Roelant Oltmans, India’s high performance director, concurs with his compatriot. “As they say, attack is the first line of defence. We are not quick to react when there is a turnover of possession. By the time we manage to read the opposition’s move, they are already in dangerous positions inside our box,” Oltmans adds.
Knowing inside out
In charge of the women’s team for the time being, Oltmans was not in Malaysia. But he knows enough about the players as he has been travelling with them extensively in the last one year and also coached them at the Champions Trophy last December.
The players will skip the ongoing National Championships in Pune and report for the camp in New Delhi that will begin after a week’s break from April 22. They are likely to play a test series in May, with Hockey India still finalizing an opponent as a preparation for the World League semifinals, which act as the Olympic qualifiers, in Belgium from June 20.
India are the only team so far that has qualified for next year’s Rio Games. Van Ass is likely to focus on getting the defence right during this preparatory phase apart from working on penalty corner conversions and players’ ability to read the game.
He also wants the players to keep their concentration levels high during the match to avoid silly errors.
“In the last three games, our concentration was there where it should be. It gave me good feeling. Still, it is on my list,” the 54-year-old says.
“Give me a little more time and the improvements will show. It will show, for sure.”