Terry Walsh is a straight-talking Aussie and a firm believer in processes. And he also believes that an Indian team with a tough mental attitude can be world-class in the hockey arena.
Walsh took over the reins of the team less than a year ago and ahead of what looked an incredibly busy season — with the World Cup, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Champions Trophy all lined up between May and December.
When the team finished ninth in the World Cup, those sitting at home and not watching the game at The Hague, Netherlands, were almost baying for his blood. Insiders claim that Walsh was pretty close to being sacked. Luckily for Indian hockey, wiser counsel prevailed and he stayed. He then took the team to the final at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Sure, India lost to Australia, but who doesn’t lose to the Aussies? — and as an Aussie, Walsh knew that better than anyone else.
The most important assignment was the Asian Games. Walsh had said it in as many words, for at stake was a berth at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. When India lost to Pakistan in the group stages, the naysayers had a field day. But Walsh termed it “just a three-point game”, meaning it was a league game and the real target was the ‘crossovers’ — semi-finals and finals.
India beat South Korea in the semifinals — they did that in the World Cup, too — and then took on Pakistan in the final. Prior to the Asiad, Pakistan had hardly played any top tournaments — they failed to qualify for the World Cup and internal strife meant they missed the Commonwealth Games, too.
India dominated the match and, in Walsh’s words, should have closed the match in the second quarter. This was the first major international tournament played over 60 minutes divided into four quarters, but it was taken to the shootout. The shootout, too, is a recent phenomenon in world hockey. Instead of strokes, strikers get eight seconds to start from the 25-yard line and beat the goalkeeper in a one-on-one contest.
Talking about the win, Walsh says, “This is a special moment for Indian hockey. It is a moment we need to cherish, and congratulations to the team for that.”
“I am pleased for the team, for boys like Sardar (Singh), who have been in the team for a long time and have not played a big final. I hope this will provide momentum to Indian hockey going forward.”
Sardar Singh, one of the best Indian players of the current generation, was relieved. “This is the best moment of my career. Our aim was to win the gold and qualify for the Olympics and we achieved that,” he says.
But looking ahead, he adds, “Now we have two years to work on the mistakes we made here. But the pressure of qualifying for the Olympics is gone and we can work hard. We have a good group of players, many youngsters and we can work on it for the next two years.”
One of the stars of the Indian team has been goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. He was brilliant at the World Cup, despite India’s poor finish, and the Commonwealth Games.
In Incheon, when it came to the crunch in the shootout, he came good yet again. “When I entered the ground, the only thought that came to my mind was that we have to win this and we can win this,” he says. “I had a feeling that it will be our day and we will create history.”
“The loss against Pakistan in the pool phase was an eye-opener. After that we worked harder and were more focussed, which resulted in the semi-final win against a strong team like Korea.”
“We know that people will expect us to win more. They want us to do well in the Olympics and we are ready to deliver. We have defeated Pakistan, won the gold and qualified for the Olympics. So, this is a three-in-one victory for us. We have enough time to prepare for the Olympics and won’t let our country down.”
Getting back to Walsh, what’s the realistic picture for the 2016 Olympics? “I strongly believe in getting the processes in place,” he says. “I believe that we need to raise the performance bar and keep working on our basics. I don’t wish to jump to any conclusions, but a top-six finish is definitely there for the taking.”
He divides the teams into two categories — the hunters and the hunted. “There is a difference between playing the hunter and the hunted,” he says. “At the World Cup, we were the hunters and here we were the hunted. The psychology of playing a hunter as opposed to being hunted is profound. Pakistan were the hunters and we were the hunted. They were targeting a team that has had more success in recent times. Pakistan played with individual flair which is the old style versus (what) India played, the modern style.”
India beat Korea and Pakistan and therein lies the reason for optimism. As Korean coach Shin Seok-kyo says, “India has benefited from playing a lot and they have had the Hero Hockey India League and they have had the World League matches and that has helped them a lot.”
And the results are there for all to see. Now for the Champions Trophy in December and then the Olympics.