There has been plenty of speculation over the futures of former India captain Sardar Singh and winger SV Sunil in a crucial year for the Indian hockey team, when they compete in a major tournament every other month. Coach Sjoerd Marijne chose to go with a young team led by Manpreet Singh for the four-nation tournament in New Zealand, where they came second-best to Belgium.
The tournament saw the return of goalkeeper PR Sreejesh from a long injury layoff and some impressive performances by young players, with striker Dilpreet Singh turning heads with quality finishing. In an interview with The Indian Express, Marijne leaves the door ajar for Sardar and Sunil to return but hints at continuing his policy to prefer young players.
India reached the final of the four-nations in New Zealand twice, and lost on both occasions. What are your takeaways from the tournament?
I am happy with the consistency, that was much better than before. I saw better play. The issues we wanted to improve – like more field goals, more penalty corner conversions – were also better. I know that Japan and New Zealand are lower-ranked countries so for me, the matches against Belgium were more important and we did really well against them. They were there with a full squad and we were having a team with plenty of young players, so that was nice.
The team had three different results against Belgium – won one, lost one and drew one before eventually losing in a shootout. What do you make of these performances?
Normally, results are the first thing we see to assess a team but I don’t look at just that. If you see the improvement as the tour progressed, we had fewer turnovers and made fewer unforced errors. And that was important for me because if you want consistency, you need to lose the ball less since every time you do that, the opponent has a chance to counter-attack. I saw more field goals – good field goals, better positioning and I was happy with that.
You point out at the improvement made in areas like turnovers and unforced errors. But the pressure of a four-nation invitational tournament is far less compared to a major event…
The pressure level is lower surely – there were 200 people watching and not 10,000. But the pressure is still high because the players know they have to perform to stay in the team. In the last month, we saw 40-45 players (at the camp) and the players who stayed back could see how the others did. So there is a lot of internal pressure and that is a good thing.
Did having PR Sreejesh back in goal after 8 months make any difference?
It would be strange if it doesn’t make a difference – he is experienced. He organised the defence. He talks a lot to the defenders in the meetings. You see the difference there.
It’s the first time you saw him in a tournament. How do you assess his comeback?
He did really well. Sreejesh is one of the leaders and after World League, if you get back a leader like him it’s really good. But Sreejesh also must fight for his chance because we have a few more goalkeepers. That competition will make him better.
How do you look at players like SV Sunil and Sardar Singh, who were dropped for the New Zealand tour? Are they still relevant to your plans?
Every player who is in the camp has a chance to go for the tournament – old or young. It’s about their performance and qualities and that’s how we are going to go about it now. If players are doing well in the camp, they get their chance. I am not looking at whether he is a junior or senior. I don’t care if he is 17 or 31 but if they are young, it’s good. However, it’s not a selection criteria.
In the three tournaments you’ve been in charge of the team, you’ve played different squads. Will you continue experimenting?
For me, it’s not experimenting. It’s always finding the right balance and it can change because every tournament is different. It’s more about giving players an opportunity.
To rephrase the question, will you go back to experienced players to get the balance for important tournaments like Commonwealth Games, Asian Games or World Cup?
There is a rule that the more experienced a player is, the more pressure he will feel. So if you have younger player, they play more freely. That’s what I mean by finding the right balance. If you see every Olympic champion team, they have players who are younger. This is one of the reasons they play freely. I put a lot of pressure on this team on this tour. I told them, ‘this is your chance to perform and play more tournaments. If you don’t perform here, it will be difficult for you in the future.’ The reason I am doing that is higher the pressure, the more I can see what their real quality is.
How did they respond?
Some did really well and didn’t feel any pressure. Some struggled and went a little up and down so that gives us good information.
Are the players comfortable with the two-touch style you are trying to instill?
They are used to it now. But it’s important that you use your qualities. We have players who have individual qualities to win 1v1 in attacks. We must use them in a good way. If you are going to pass every ball and not use those skills, then a lot of defenders in the world will sleep really well. So for us, the players need to learn when they should go 1v1. I don’t want to lose that quality. That’s what I saw in this tournament, some great skills. Most of the goals came from individual qualities. Only when you do too much, and don’t see the other one free, you have a problem.
It’s a busy year, with the team playing a major tournament every two months. How do you plan to keep players fresh?
It will be tough for players to play six tournaments – that’s why I am happy to see 40 players. Of course, Asian Games and World Cup are really important. It doesn’t mean others are not important. In India, you have to go to every tournament to win it and that’s an important mindset. That’s the way I want to keep it. I want to win everything. The team wants to win everything. I don’t know if it’s always going to happen, but it’s always our goal.