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In absence of strong domestic structure, Indian hockey can’t build on Tokyo success

In its obsessive pursuit of an Olympic medal, India had focused exclusively on the core group of 30-odd players, who have been in and around the national team. The rung below, however, remains severely undercooked.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
December 26, 2021 9:19:36 am
If there was one big takeaway from the Junior World Cup, where India finished fourth, and the Asian Champions Trophy, which concluded last week, it’s that there is an urgent need to overhaul the country’s domestic structure.

In early 2019, a bunch of Indian players approached the then High-Performance Director of Hockey India, David John, confused and concerned.

It was a winter of discontent in Indian hockey. Months prior, the team had been booted out of the semifinals at the 2018 Asian Games, thus missing the chance of qualifying directly for the Tokyo Olympics, and a couple of months later, they exited in the quarterfinals of the World Cup at home.

In between those two tournaments, former captain Sardar Singh had retired and in the aftermath of the two debacles, coach Harendra Singh was sacked.

The musical chairs around the coaching position had left players baffled: with every change came a new playing style, different philosophy and more uncertainty. So, in a lengthy meeting between the players and John, who is set to return as the High-Performance Director, it was decided to follow some basic principles, within which every future coach would have to operate.

Broadly, it outlined the ways India would defend and attack. For instance, when with the ball, the team would minimise risk in defensive situations, run forward to outnumber the opponents during turnovers, take fast free hits, and keep possession patiently when attacking; off the ball, the players would apply aggressive press to win back possession in the attacking third, deny time and space while defending and get every player behind the ball.

“The players wanted to play this way and we jointly came up with this philosophy. So even if the coaches changed in the future, the basic style of playing would remain the same, but at the same time, give the coaches enough space to work their own ways,” John said.

The Manpreet Singh-led Indian team won the bronze in Tokyo Games earlier this year to end a 41-year medal wait for the country. (File)

It was an important step in the right direction to fix the national team, providing some sort of identity. Graham Reid, who joined as head coach in mid-2019, added nuance to that style, made the team stronger on the ball while instilling a sense of calmness to guide India to its first podium position at the Olympics in 41 years.

But in the last few weeks, it became evident that the so-called national style of play hasn’t penetrated below the first team. In its obsessive pursuit of an Olympic medal, India had focused exclusively on the core group of 30-odd players, who have been in and around the national team. The rung below, however, remains severely undercooked.

If there was one big takeaway from the Junior World Cup, where India finished fourth, and the Asian Champions Trophy, which concluded last week, it’s that there is an urgent need to overhaul the country’s domestic structure, which has been severely disrupted by the pandemic, for the team to continue its forward march in international hockey.

In the post-Hockey India League phase, the current system is producing players who lack understanding of defensive structures, are unable to identify opponents’ offensive patterns or orchestrate running lines, have poor off-the-ball movements and, can’t cope with pressure.

This has nothing to do with the pandemic; these are some of the technical aspects that can be taught from an early age and honed in domestic competitions. However, in a structurally-flawed system like India’s, neither is possible.

Hockey India has undertaken a massive project to educate coaches, bring them up to date with modern hockey and also make them familiar with the national team’s style of play. But it’s still at a very early stage to judge any impact.

Weak domestic competition

The problem that paralyses Indian hockey is the weak domestic competition. India is one of the few elite hockey nations not having their own league. Once a year, a couple of dozen teams participate in the national championships, held for all age-groups.

The recently-concluded senior championships confirmed the reason why the competition isn’t taken as seriously anymore: coaching methods are archaic and the games lack the pace, intensity and quality seen in domestic competitions of other established hockey nations. One could see why national team coaches are hesitant to release core group players for club duties – they are often worried that the level of the players, technical and fitness-wise, will drop.

Given that players for the national team are scouted from these domestic competitions, it is important that their standard improves. India will find it extremely tough to improve on its Tokyo bronze if it relies solely on getting players from the current domestic structure.

The need to either revive the Hockey India League (HIL) or have a tournament of a similar nature has been emphasised before. The role of HIL in developing Indian players – almost all who were a part of the Tokyo team belong to the HIL generation – has been immense. It didn’t matter that the competition lasted just for a month or so. As captain Manpreet Singh once said, even a month of HIL helped him grow ‘several years’ as a player.

The exposure Indians received by playing under some of the best foreign coaches and alongside the world’s best players improved their game sense and brought it to such a level that they were ultimately able to come up with their own identity and style of play.

For the next generation to continue that, India will first need to provide them a platform where they can bring themselves up to that level.

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