After the ’80s, consistency became the singular, most important issue and one of the many challenges that Indian hockey continues to grapple with.
Throwback to the Golden Era of Hockey
Slightly off the National Highway 503, a sharp turn to the right takes you down a lane, wide enough for a couple of cars to pass through, till you reach Charanjit Singh’s Una residence. It’s the NH 205 from Chandigarh that links 503 to Una, a town and district in Himachal Pradesh ringed by small hills. Go past Una on the 503 and you reach Dharamshala. Not known to many, in Una lives the town’s only Olympic Gold Medallist, Charanjit Singh, captain of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic hockey team that won gold.
Charanjit is 88, walks slowly. When he speaks, some words slip, a few lose direction. Yet, he is sharp, remembers the matches and is extremely proud that India didn’t lose a single game at the Tokyo Olympics, not a rarity then.
It’s a different era now. Yet, among a host of things that a team places emphasis on, consistency remains a key ingredient in the path to the podium. In the ’50s, ’60s and deep into the ’70s too, consistency wasn’t a bugbear. Structures were tight within various India teams and as advances were made by other nations, trying to catch up with India, consistency remained India’s strength. After the ’80s, it became the singular, most important issue and one of the many challenges that Indian hockey continues to grapple with.
Charanjit speaks a lot about consistency. He captained a team that had players like Shankar Lakshman in goal. Full-back and chief goal-scorer, Prithipal Singh. Upfront were Haripal Kaushik, Joginder Singh and Harbinder Singh. The unassuming but solid inside right Udham Singh and the maestro in the midfield, Mohinder Lal. How do you lose with such a team?
“We did draw two games,” remembers Charanjit. “But the question during training and even during matches was always of not conceding. We understood the opposition, so it got easier to understand what to do when without the ball.”Charanjit speaks about consistency as the only ‘mantra’ that takes you to the podium. “You could say that a good team is consistent. But I would say, it’s more mental even for a good team. You are in a bad position and at times, skill is not the only weapon. You need to be able to overcome situations. Training should be to overcome tight margins, or when you are a goal down.”
Both the Indian men’s and women’s team are already in Tokyo, the city where Charanjit’s boys won gold. They will play a test event, almost a year to the date when India play the Olympic Games.
Hockey statistician BG Joshi compiled a ranking based on the team’s success percentage. The top four nations are Australia (73 percent), Belgium (61 percent), Netherlands (55 percent), Argentina (53 percent) and in 5th spot is India also with 53 percent. Results of the Rio Olympics (2016), World Cup (2018), Champions Trophy (2016, 2018), Pro League (2019) and FIH Series Finals (2019) have been taken into consideration.
There is a considerable improvement in the ranking and therefore consistency of the Indian team. Of course, you can’t compare it to the 1964 gold medal-winning Indian Olympic team – an epochal period. Charanjit’s team at the Tokyo Games, played nine, won seven, drew two. They scored 22 goals and conceded 5. Prithipal Singh was the top scorer with ten goals.
It is during this period (Rio 2016 Olympics till the Pro-League) that
• Australia have played 39, won 26, drawn 7 and lost 6.
• World Champions, Belgium have played 42, won 22, drawn 11 and lost 9
• The Netherlands have played 37, won 17, drawn 10, lost 10.
• The Olympic Champions Argentina have played 32, won 15, drawn 6, lost 11.
• India have played 25, won 11, drawn 7 and lost 7.
• New Zealand have one of the worst records with 23 played, won 2, drawn 6 and lost 15.
Consistency stands for great teams like the Aussie cricket team captained by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting that dominated world cricket for more than a decade starting from 1999. The winning streak was 25 games in the World Cups from 1999 to 2011. It started in the final of the 1999 World Cup and the team won every game they played in the 2003 and 2007 editions.
The Pakistan hockey team was one of the most tenacious teams in the World Cups. They won in 1971, finished fourth two years later, then second in 1975 and won the title in 1978 and 1982. Then there was a blip in 1986 where they finished 11th but they bounced back to win silver four years later and then again lifted the cup in 1994. Quite a terrific record!
Center of Excellence for Hockey
To sharpen the talent of players, a centre of excellence for hockey and boxing will be set up at the Aurangabad centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Hockey and boxing players currently playing in junior groups will be nurtured here. They will be groomed for 2024 and 2028 Olympics, as per Deputy Director of SAI Aurangabad, Virendra Bhandarkar. The centre is well-equipped with boxing rings and synthetic hockey turf, he said.”Our establishment has been allotted with the zonal center for excellence for two games. We would get the strength of around 35 in boxing…We are expecting 24 boys and as many girls here in hockey,” he added.Players will be selected through various competitions by talent scout teams, Bhandarkar said.”A new hostel, which can accommodate 300 players, is also sanctioned for SAI, Aurangabad.
Training in Europe
Training camps are where teams build on their strengths, systems and tactics. How they match-up with rivals can be gauged by results. But coaches also like to compare their players in non-match situations with other teams—indicating where the players stand vis-a-vis other teams. To make such an assessment, the Indian hockey team had a joint training session with the Netherlands during its recent tour of Europe when they played against reigning world champions Belgium and Spain.
In the joint session at Arnhem, Netherlands, players from both teams had GPS devices strapped to their bodies which helped the coaches collect data, like distance covered by each player, acceleration and deceleration, sprint intensity etc and compare it with data collected during the national camp at Bengaluru. The idea behind a joint training session was to inspire both sets of players and trigger the competitive juices between them, making them exert a little extra. The idea, worked out with the help of Dutch coach Max Caldas, also helped the team management tell the players the levels needed to become the top team in the world.
The support staff had the GPS numbers from team’s domestic training and compared those to the numbers recorded during the joint training session with the Dutch. They can now show the players what sort of level they need to achieve.Reid had participated in such joint training sessions with other teams during his stint as assistant coach with the Dutch team and introduced it for the first time for the Indian outfit.The European tour was ideal for such an exercise as the Papendal Sports Centre at Arnhem was just two hours by road from Antwerp, Belgium.“Training with the Dutch team was very good. It was high intensity training and we got to see the energy they bring to their sessions. We got to see first hand how they train and overall, it was good experience,” forward SV Sunil said.
The time spent in refining skills, poring over countless training sessions and understanding the opposition goes a long way in bringing consistency. India last lifted the World Cup in 1975. Since 1980, they are yet to reach the semi-finals or even the last four of a World Cup. Why? It’s difficult to answer.
This article was originally published on FirstPost.com