This piece was published in Sportskeeda
There was a huge outpouring of anger and disgust after the Indian men’s hockey team’s wooden spoon finish at the London Olympics – the bottom-place finish prompted legions of hockey fans to bay for the blood of the national players, more particularly chief coach Michael Nobbs.
Four months after the London Olympics, the national team is injecting a ray of hope after its creditable fourth place finish in the 34th FIH Champions Trophy, followed by a runners-up performance at the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy in Doha.
India went down fighting 4-5 against arch-rivals Pakistan in the summit clash, but were justifiably furious with Korean umpire Yun Shin Dong, who first awarded a penalty stroke and later reversed the decision, prompting captain Sardar Singh to lead his players off the field with three minutes remaining from the final hooter.
Indian team chief coach Michael Nobbs reckons the Korean umpire denied the Indian a second shot at the Asian Champions Trophy title. “It was poor umpiring from Yun. He first awarded a penalty stroke after SV Sunil was pushed inside the Pakistan D and later cancelled it after consulting the third umpire and awarded Pakistan a 16-yard hit. That’s when Sardar was livid and led his team off the turf. We discussed the issue on the sidelines and decided to resume action, but that incident left a bitter taste in our mouths,” Nobbs revealed the unsavoury developments to Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.
The final was a cracker of a match, replete with end-to-end action which must have left the spectators hugely satisfied. “It was a classic India-Pakistan match filled with fast-paced hockey. We fought hard but there is no disgrace in losing 4-5 in a final match. Had we got that penalty stroke in our favour, who knows the final outcome could have been different,” Nobbs quipped.
The refreshing part of Indian hockey after the London Olympics has been their tenacity to claw their way back from crisis situations and not lose matches tamely. Nobbs believes the induction of youngsters has hugely helped. “Since the London Olympics, we have blooded a lot of youngsters, which has helped our cause. You got to have a right blend of youth and experience – you can’t be a winning side with only youngsters; similarly you can’t be a winning side with only ageing and experience players – a right mix of youth and experience has been our success recipe in our recent tournaments.”
Nobbs is glad to see the Australian brand of tough hockey in the current Indian team. “This team has learnt to fight hard and not offer meek surrenders – I come from Australia – where we played tough, rugged hockey – Kookaburras may win or lose but always go hard at their opponents, so it’s pleasing to see the same competitive spirit in this Indian side,” he observed.
India may have fared well in the FIH Champions Trophy as well as in the Asian Champions Trophy, but Nobbs has clearly outlined his priorities. “We got to have a wide base. Look at the Australian team, they have a pool of 30-35 players. At the moment, we have 18 players up to the standards I’m looking for, ideally I’m looking for a pool of around 30-35 players. If we can have such a player base, it will be a happy situation to be in. You also got to remember that if the same players keep playing day in day out they will eventually burn out,” the Aussie touched a pertinent point.
One of the biggest positives of India from the Asian Champions Trophy has been the much improved defending skills of Vokkaliga Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh. Nobbs is of the opinion that the duo can only get better. “With the absence of the seniors, Raghunath and Rupinder have assumed more responsibility. They take a lot of pride in playing for the country and it showed in their performance. Even our penalty corner conversions have improved since the London Olympics though there is plenty of room for improvement in this area,” he skirted against any complacency.
There is also healthy competition in the Indian goalkeeping department with PR Sreejesh and PT Rao doing well with London Olympics captain Bharat Chetri sitting out. Nobbs agrees it is a positive augury for the team. “It’s good to have a problem of plenty when it comes to selecting players. Both Sreejesh and Rao are performing well. Both have different goalkeeping styles – Sreejesh has quick reflexes but Rao does not have quick reflexes, but makes up for that with his experience of being playing at the senior level for 14 years and is also a tough nut to crack.”
When asked how Sardar Singh has shaped up after taking over the mantle of captaincy from Bharat Chetri after the Olympics, Nobbs exuded hope, “Sardar is a role model for not just the Indian players but also the world over. He leads from the front; even Raghunath as vice-captain has done a fair job.”
Sandeep Singh of India celebrates his fiIndian team dished out an impressive performance in the last two international tournaments sans many of its senior players – more prominently drag-flicker Sandeep Singh.
Nobbs feels that the national team door is still open for Sandeep. “Age is not a barrier for any player. If a player brings value to the side but is on the wrong side of thirty, I’m not going to hold the age factor against him and would pick him. Sandeep has to reinvent himself. We all know about his penalty corner prowess. He has to improve his agility and man-to-man marking. He knows it and is working on it. Hope he fares well in the upcoming Hockey India League,” something which should sound like music to the ears of the ace fullback.
Nobbs also held out hope for discarded strikers – Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandker. “Like Sandeep, they can also stage a comeback. They have the Hockey India League to show that they are ready to play for the national team. They are strikers and their job is to score and score consistently, it’s as simple as that.”
The Indian coach has no doubts that the inaugural Hockey India League would be a huge boon for the Indian players. “It’s a great opportunity for the national as well as the fringe players to make an impression – they can gain exposure by playing with some of the world’s top players and also know where they stand.”
Like many of us, was he surprised at the latest FIH world hockey rankings, which put India at 11th position despite a fourth place finish at the FIH Champions Trophy?
“Yeah, I was little surprised but not too concerned as we qualified for the next year’s Champions Trophy,” he signed off.