‘Gold in Rio Olympics is definitely a target for the team’

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Photo: Tehelka Archives
Photo: Tehelka Archives

Edited Excerpts from an interview

How satisfied are you with the Indian team’s performance in the Azlan Shah tournament?

I am satisfied with the performance. We played under a new coach and we tried new strategies as well as team combinations. We started slowly in the initial part of the tournament but I will say our performance was satisfactory in those matches. It’s just that we missed out on a few crucial opportunities that cost us the matches. However, we recovered well and the youngsters did a commendable job throughout the tournament. The match against Australia showed our real strength and performance.

What were the gains for India from the tournament?

We tried new players and gave more opportunities to young talent. They performed as per our expectations and displayed the zeal to learn and deliver under pressure. Jasjit Singh Kular and Satbir Singh showcased an outstanding performance throughout the tournament, which is a very positive sign for the team. Coach Paul van Ass tried new combinations and strategies that worked well and we are happy with the experiments. Overall, we had a good tournament with a good finish.

What were the team’s strengths and weaknesses ? And what are the areas we need to improve in order to fare well in future tournaments?

We need to improve our concentration in the first few minutes and need to start with a better attack. A good start helps to keep the opponent busy and check unnecessary goals in the first quarter. We also have to be more attentive and need to improve our game in the last quarter of the matches. We should maintain a similar pace throughout the match and that will help us to keep the ball possession. Strengths, as I mentioned earlier, are young players who performed brilliantly and implemented team strategies on the field perfectly. New players, new strategies and new team combinations will help us in the upcoming tournaments.

Tell us about the team’s stunning win over Australia.

It was a very good game after a disappointing start in the tournament. The team recovered well, especially the young players. Some credit should go to Hero Hockey India League (HHIL) where all the boys play high-level hockey with and against international players. The experiences from the HHIL help the boys to play under extreme conditions without allowing pressure to get the better of them. We have been playing good hockey against the Australians and we defeated them in Australia last year. It’s a good sign for the team as we tend to give the best against a higher-ranked team.

How was it working with the new foreign coach Paul van Ass? How different is he from his predecessor Terry Walsh?

Every coach has his style of teaching and is different from others. Both Paul van Ass and Terry Walsh are very good coaches. We are very lucky to play under the guidance of top international coaches. A team should be flexible in combinations, which make players more versatile and increase the surprise element against opponents. We are learning new things under the new coach.

Which other tournament is the team likely to play before the 2016 Rio Olympics?

We will have a Test Series with Japan in Bhubaneswar in the month of May, which will be in preparation for the FINTRO Hockey World League semi-final round in Antwerp, Belgium in June and July. That will be an important event for us and we all are concentrating on it. After that there will be the FIH Hockey World League final round in November and December in India. In 2016, we will participate in the FIH Men’s Champions Trophy again, this time in Argentina, just before the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Who are the key players in the team according to you and why?

All the players are important and we all work as a same unit. All play a crucial role in the team and contribute immensely. Young players such Akashdeep Singh, Gurbaj Singh, Mandeep Singh, Manpreet Singh, Satbir Singh and Jasjit Singh are displaying international level of hockey, which is a good sign for the team. PR Sreejesh, who is a world-class goalkeeper, and all the senior players are playing a great role of mentoring junior players in the team. The environment in the dressing room is great.

What are the pressures that you feel as the Indian hockey team skipper?

We play like a team and we all bear the same kind of pressure. We follow the team’s strategies and the coach’s instructions on the field. Our job is to understand our roles and implement the strategies on the field. Hockey as a game is very fast and we get very less time to prepare on game-planning. Being a midfielder, my job is to set up an attack and initiate the passes. Here, my choice of attack and pass is decisive for the team and the game-plan is based on that.

You recently got the Padma Shri. Do you feel awards like these will boost youngsters to take up the sport?

Certainly, these kinds of awards motivate youngsters to take sports as a career. Before me, the best hockey players had received awards from the government and we have grown up watching their achievements. Legendary players have played a huge role in developing players like us. Our achievements and awards will motivate other young players and bring out new talent at the international level. Hockey is a very popular sport in India and it is still producing world-class players. It has a good future and the players have the potential to bring more laurels to the country.

Tell us about your experience playing in the HHIL. Do you think it will help Indian hockey in the long run?

As I mentioned earlier, the HHIL is playing an important role of nurturing young talent for international matches. All the teams are very competitive in the HHIL and have the best coaching staff in the world.

In addition to that, all the top-level international players participate in the League, which provides a great platform for the young talent to learn and grow. Youngsters get to experience the high level intensity of playing and training under the best coaches. The HHIL is a great platform for young players on which the future of Indian hockey lies.

You are one of the greats of Indian hockey. How confident are you of the team winning the ultimate – the gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics? Can India do it?

It’s too early to predict anything now. But yes, we are aiming for that and working harder in every tournament. The whole team, including the coaching staff, is working towards the Rio Olympics. However, we will face tough competition from the best teams as they are aiming for the same. At present, we are focussing tournament by tournament, making short targets and improving our game in all departments. We are hoping for the best at the Olympics.

arijeet@tehelka.com

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