FIH Champions Trophy 2018: 'India better team than Pakistan, confident of top-three finish,' says Harendra Singh
Turbulence has been a constant, apart from change, as far as Indian hockey is concerned over the years. However, resilience finds a place as well and in equal measure.
Not even the dourest of pessimists can help but marvel at the manner in which the players, coaches and die-hard fans have managed to pull back from the brink and remain upbeat in trying circumstances. The most recent upheaval following a less-than-satisfactory show at Gold Coast meant that a tried and tested hand from within our shores will now attempt to bring home the silverware from Breda.
Most experienced International coach in Indian history
Harendra Singh seemed a bit irked when asked how much of a challenge it will be to take on the top 4 in the world as coach of the senior men's team after having coached the juniors and the women's teams.
"I have been associated with the senior men's team in the past as well, in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 (as an assistant to V Bhaskaran), in the 2006 Asian Games and World Cup, and in 2010 Asian Games, World Cup, and Commonwealth Games (as an assistant to Jose Brasa)," he reiterated.
Could the question have been rephrased to include the term 'chief coach''?
A rather difficult proposition, considering that Harendra was the coach in-charge of the Indian men's team before Jose Brasa was appointed in May 2009, following which he worked as an assistant to the Spaniard. It was during that tenure that India won silver in the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010, and a bronze in the Asian Games the same year.
When Brasa left, Harendra was in charge of the team again until Aussie, Michael Nobbs, was appointed. No other individual (from India or abroad) has spent as much time as Harendra Singh has in coaching Indian teams at the international level. In fact, no Indian has come anywhere close to equalling the total number of years that Harendra spent performing the job at the highest level.
The coach is proud of his boys and leaves no room for doubt that he has ample confidence in their abilities.
"I see a lot of potential in the team, the way this side has been shaping up in the last 4 or 5 years. There is a need to harness the potential."
"As far as strategies are concerned, I am neither in favour of introducing major changes nor are they needed. There are a few minor adjustments which are required, which I am implementing and we are training accordingly. Given the morale of the team and the way the boys are playing, I am confident of a top-three finish (at Breda)."
History not on India's side, can Harendra tilt the scales?
India has faced the Aussies 15 times thus far in the Champions Trophy and has won just twice! The overall head-to-head record is nothing to rejoice over either, with India having won just 22 out of 123 matches played. In the last 8 years, India has beaten the Aussies 7 times in 36 encounters.
Against the Dutch, India has won just 31 out of a total of 102 encounters. India's last win against the Netherlands was in 2015 in the Hockey World League bronze medal match when the scoreline was tied 5-5 at the end of regulation time and India prevailed in the shootout. In the Champions Trophy, India has won only three of their 13 encounters against the Dutch.
India beat Belgium in a quarterfinal encounter of the HWL Final in Bhubaneswar last December. They also beat the Red Lions once in the Four-Nations Invitational in New Zealand but lost in the finals of both legs of the tournament.
"It is not as if we have not beaten these teams at all. We beat Holland in the HWL Final in Raipur. We also beat Belgium recently. Against the top 8 teams, strategy takes a backseat. On the pitch, it is a battle between 11 players from both sides. The battle is a lot more mental than anything else. Teams who are mentally very strong can deliver results consistently at this level."
"There is a very thin line between winning and losing. Individual players need to develop their mental strength. In India, we have been focussing only on skill, but the time has now come for us to focus on the mental aspect as well."
In order to stress the need for individual players to develop their own skill, this is what the super-coach had to say.
"In Europe, the football club season has just ended. The players of National teams rarely get to play together as they are busy with their clubs. The individual players prepare mentally and physically by themselves. They then gel together as a team and win tournaments."
"The philosophy of hockey coaching is the same universally and all the coaches will tell you the same. When you do not have the ball, how soon you can gain possession is the key, and when you do have the ball, how you threaten the opponents with it is important."
"Individual players need to take decisions on the field. The Coal India HIL is one of the best initiatives taken by Hockey India as Indian players get the opportunity to play alongside Europeans.''
The players, he said, have learned that it is not always about the team and strategy. "Physical and mental preparedness on an individual level is of great importance. We were always a good team physically, but now we are good mentally as well."
'All the teams are playing hockey with a full press'
We asked Harendra Singh if the Indians could depend on field goals against the compact defensive structures that the top teams have.
"How can you say that teams which have lost by a margin of 3 or 4 goals have a strong defensive structure? All the teams in the world are now playing attacking hockey."
"European teams (like Holland) have learned a lesson from Australia. Holland lost 1-6 to Australia (in the World Cup final). The coaches realized that if you set up camp in your territory and keep waiting for chances to create counter-attacks, the ploy will not work. Over the last 2 or 3 years, all the teams in the world are playing hockey with a full press."
"There are advantages and disadvantages in both, but if you adopt a defensive approach, it becomes a waiting game. The other team may deny you any opportunities whatsoever which means that the result can only be a draw and not a win."
"The modern game is very fast as it is played out in 4 quarters and no team can take the risk of holding back. It is much better to use the ball as a weapon in the opponent's half rather than keeping it in your own half."
India much better than Pakistan
India demolished Pakistan on four occasions last year but in the Commonwealth Games, the match between the old rivals ended in a draw. We asked the Indian coach if the Pakistanis had suddenly improved or was it the Indians who fell short.
"I watched the match and I thought we played pretty well. We had numerous circle penetrations but failed to score because of errors in the striking circle. We also let them build pressure on us in the last quarter."
"The positives were that we had some good circle penetrations and some good shots on goal, but the positioning of the boys to either score or direct assists was wrong. If you enter the opponent's circle countless times but still do not score, it means there is something wrong with your positioning."
"Pakistan has improved to a moderate degree as far as their structure is concerned. In the CWG, they had definitely not improved enough to be able to outplay India in any manner or cause a threat to us."
Former India coach Roelant Oltmans and Harendra Singh worked together during the Junior World Cup in 2016.
We asked Harendra if he deemed Oltmans (who is now with the Pakistan team) capable of resurrecting the Pakistanis to a degree that they can pose a challenge to India.
"I do not think this is a topic I can comment on as he is not in our country today and what he was, is, or can do is immaterial to us. Roelant Oltmans is now the coach of Pakistan and only he and the Pakistan hockey federation are aware of developments there. I have no idea what is happening there and I feel it is beyond my purview to comment on Oltmans."
"I like commenting on things I have control over. I am coach of the Indian team and I will focus only on the Indian team. What the Pakistan team has done in the past, what they are planning now, and what they are capable of, etc. is not something that interests me in the least and will not matter to me on the day of the match as well."