In a press conference preceding the prestigious Champions Trophy at Breda, Harendra Singh who had just taken over the reins of the Indian men’s side was repeatedly asked if he was thrust into a race against time given that the Asian Games and World Cup were scheduled soon after.
Without batting an eyelid, Harendra went on to explain that with three big tournaments lined up one after the other, it was a golden opportunity for him to prove himself as a coach, and stressed that he was under no pressure whatsoever since he was familiar with the language and the culture of the team.
A hasty and seemingly illogical coach swap had just begun to make sense after the Indian men’s team landed in Breda and vanquished arch-rivals Pakistan and Olympic champions Argentina in two successive power-packed days that left Indian hockey fans euphoric.
A notoriously erratic bunch had flattered only to deceive once too often — surrendering the advantage one day after an inspired performance — but despite Akashdeep Singh and Sumit being replaced on the eve of the team’s departure, Harendra Singh’s boys defended with aplomb and attacked fearlessly.
What’s more, the Indians lost Ramandeep Singh after the Pakistan encounter, but in spite of being a man short for the rest of the tournament, Sreejesh and co. battled on to earn creditable draws against Belgium and hosts, the Netherlands, before treating the Australians to a ripsnorter of a contest albeit as losing finalists.
Nothing could go wrong, it seemed, after a Champions Trophy silver medal, and true to form the Indians pummeled their way into the Asian Games semifinal breaking many a continental record on the way before being stunned by a gritty Malaysian outfit.
As a result of the loss, the Indians failed to earn a direct berth to Tokyo and not even a World Cup quarterfinal finish could help Harendra Singh keep his job after a torrid and eventful six months at the helm.
The Indian men who had been insistent that they could deliver results under a mentor who spoke their own language are now under the tutelage of a High-Performance Director, Analytical Coach, and Head Coach, all of whom are Australian.
Unlike his predecessor, Graham Reid has had the advantage of being able to settle in without being put through the unenviable task of guiding his side past three vital tournaments in the space of six months.
The boys who lost to Korea in the Azlan Shah Cup final prior to his formal appointment did have a disappointing tour Down Under but have since won two back-to-back tournaments.
So far, so good – the Indians should in all probability get past the Russians in their Olympic qualifiers but an acid test awaits the Indian camp early next year, as the fifth-ranked side in the world joins the elite Pro League in 2020 after opting out of the first edition.
The nature of the opposition at the FIH Series Finals and the Olympic Test events was not in the same league as the Champions Trophy or the World Cup. From January to June, the Pro League is sure to stretch the Indian think tank ahead of the Olympics – and will be unlike any other event that the unit has hitherto been associated with.
A hard-fought win over minnows Poland in the FIH Series Finals revealed a few chinks in the armour — and in the pool phase of the Olympic test events, the Indians lost to New Zealand — a team which had failed to win any of their fourteen Pro League encounters.
How prepared are the Indians for the Pro League?
Reid’s boys set the record straight by thrashing the Black Sticks in the final, but just how prepared are the Indians to take on the top-ranked teams in the world and shuttle across continents time and again given that they have not played a single world-class tournament this year?
In an effort to elicit answers, The Bridge consulted three renowned coaches — Siegfried Aikman, Max Caldas, and Harendra Singh — all of whom, surprisingly, echoed much the same sentiments.
FIH master-coach Siegfried Aikman has been of the opinion that the Indians lost out by not being part of the first edition of the League – now that they will join the action in January, the Dutchman reckoned that the Indians will benefit from the fact that most teams have chosen to play an attacking brand of hockey in the tournament thus far.
“It was a way to increase competition within their teams for the continental Olympic qualifiers. Of course, the level was okay and the matches were exciting and different from the other tournaments – the matches were like the Cup matches in football and many teams played all or nothing and very attacking hockey”.
“High scores were recorded many a time with lots of goals in the last quarter. There were many great comebacks. That is just the type of hockey that India excels in.”
Aikman is perhaps the best-qualified coach to assess the Indians, as his Japanese side has played against India at the Asian Games and Asian Champions Trophy in 2018 followed by the Azlan Shah Cup, FIH Series Finals, and Olympic Test events earlier this year.
The man who created history by guiding Samurai Japan to an Asian Games gold medal is quick to point out that the Indians are one of the fittest sides in the world today and are tactically sound as well.
“In the Olympic Test event, they played great and well-structured hockey. They might do it in the Pro League too, especially because teams will use the Pro League to prepare for the Olympics.”
“Teams with players in foreign leagues will not have the ability to prepare themselves the way teams with a centralized system like India, Australia, GB and Belgium can do.”
“For instance, the Argentineans have players in Belgium, Holland, Germany and at home – not all players will be available for matches and training. The Dutch and German players have their national league which doesn’t allow them to practice much with the national team.”
Reid and his wards do have the capabilities: Experts
Graham Reid who will shoulder the responsibility of devising the strategies for his side against teams like Australia, Belgium, and Holland in the Pro League has spent a great deal of time in the Netherlands and was the assistant to Dutch coach Max Caldas before moving to India.
Caldas, the former Argentinean Olympian who spearheaded Holland’s silver-medal winning World Cup campaign was emphatic that the Indians are well on course for a good show at the Pro League given their FT program and the upcoming European tour.
“The Indians have played in the Hockey Series and will play now in the qualifiers against Russia. They have an FT program going, so they will be fine.”
“Moreover, they will also be touring Europe as well.”
The degree to which Reid’s wards manage to justify their world rankings in the first half of 2020 may well determine how they perform in Tokyo – assuming, of course, that they get through the qualifiers.
Few can deny that the distinct buzz which was so very evident in hockey circles in India last year has now waned considerably given the fact that the Men in Blue have not been involved in that many memorable encounters in recent times.
Yet, contrary to what many believe, the experts have spoken — and opine that Graham Reid and co. do have it in them to cross swords with the best in the business in spite of wading their way through relatively tranquil waters over the last nine months or so.
Former coach Harendra Singh who has been associated with Indian hockey for longer than any of his contemporaries was succinct in his response to The Bridge when asked about his views on India’s Pro League prospects.
“I think we have very good bench strength with good exposure and experience. We missed the previous Pro League tournament but I think we have a great chance to have good results in the next edition both in view of the rich experience of the players and the bench strength.”
Surely, the Pro League could never have been complete without a nation that boasts of a historical hockey pedigree like no other — but can the Indian men overcome their infamous tendency to crack under pressure when the going gets tough?
Success in the prestigious League could well catapult Indian hockey to a whole new level — and come January, spectators across the country will hopefully be treated to a six-month extravaganza like never before with the Olympics to follow — hockey is here to stay folks!