Indian hockey: A tribute to the mentors
Michael Nobbs once said that coaching India was the most high-pressure job in international hockey. Being in the hot seat from 2011 to 2013 equipped him more than adequately to know what he was talking about. The Australian, a member of the 1984 Olympic squad, had to quit his India assignment owing to deteriorating health.
As 2017 saw the baton pass again from Roelant Oltmans to Sjoerd Marijne, one has to acknowledge, without doubt, the contribution (varying in degree) of all those who mentored Indian hockey over the last ten years or so. If not for them, how indeed would the transformation have been possible?
A decade ago, Hockey India took the decision to appoint Aussie legend Ric Charlesworth as the technical director for the Indian hockey team. It is debatable whether Charlesworth was a better player or a better coach, such was his stature, among the very best of all time in both roles.
Part of the legendary Aussie team of the 1980s along with Michael Nobbs and Terry Walsh (who also incidentally coached India), his tenure in India ended abruptly. Disillusioned with the administrators of the game and the state of affairs he decided to call it a day in less than a year.
He returned to India in 2010 to win gold, not for India though but as coach of the Australian Men's Hockey Team in the New Delhi World Cup. As a coach, he also won for his home country, at the 2009 and 2010 Champions Trophy, ending his tenure with gold for Australia in the 2014 World Cup in The Hague. Is it not reasonable to believe then, that in the ten months the super coach spent with India at least a small part of the magic rubbed off on the team?
Slow but steady rise
If anyone had suggested a decade ago that India would be ranked sixth best in the hockey world today, the comments would have easily been brushed off as wishful thinking. And not even the most die-hard of fans could have predicted that India would win a silver medal in the 2016 Champions Trophy. It is a matter of immense pride to be able to qualify to play in this elite tournament comprising the best teams in the world where each team has to play all the others in a tough round robin format.
Such a transformation could not have happened overnight. For a great many years India had not even qualified for the Champions Trophy, having to play instead in the second-rung Champions Challenge. No matter how short the stints, credit has to be given to each and every member of the coaching staff for uplifting the game from the depths of despair.
No doubt, Ric Charlesworth's successors, Jose Brasa, Micheal Nobbs, and Terry Walsh did their bit too in adding valuable inputs which translated into results over time. India won a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and bronze in the Asian Games the same year with Jose Brasa as coach. Terry Walsh guided India to a silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Oltmans, the master tactician
None succeeded, however, like Roelant Oltmans did. Under Oltmans, Indian hockey reached dizzying new heights. In the years preceding Oltmans' appointment, a major area of concern was the team conceding goals in the final minutes of a close match thus losing or drawing a hard-fought encounter after playing brilliantly. Under Oltmans, there was a marked and discernible change with physical fitness becoming the forte of the team.
Before Oltmans was appointed coach, he came in as high-performance director of the team following India's 12th place finish in the London Olympics. From then until the end of his tenure, Indian hockey has only risen. That fact is indisputable.
Oltmans served as an advisor to the Indian Junior Mens Team who won the World Cup in 2016 which augurs well for the future of Indian hockey. Oltmans ensured that India were undisputed champions of Asia with gold in the Asian Champions Trophy in 2016. The coveted silver medal in the Champions Trophy in 2016 was the biggest prize of all. In the final against the mighty Australian team, the scoreline was blank at the end of the fourth quarter and Australia finally prevailed in a tense penalty shootout. India also won silver at the Azlan Shah tournament in Malaysia in 2016 going down to Australia in the finals.
Sjoerd Marijne and high-performance director David John are now at the helm at a crucial stage in the hockey calendar with the biggest of all tournaments the World Cup slated at the end of next year. Before getting there, however, India will play in the Commonwealth Games in Australia and the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands. Being previous silver medallists in both competitions, India will aim to go one better. Can they achieve this monumental feat?
Sjoerd Marijne has his task cut out, but his team's recent win in the Asia Cup and also a bronze in the Hockey World League have ensured a smooth start.
Looking forward to a great year of hockey ahead, its time to wish Marijne and his team all the very best, hoping that Indian hockey scales greater heights in the years to come. Let's not forget, however, the immense contribution of the great Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, who is now a consultant for Madhya Pradesh hockey and his predecessors in catapulting Indian hockey to amongst the very best in the world once again.