"The nonsense of an ultimatum to the coach is uncalled for," says former India goalkeeper Ashish Ballal
Coincidentally, or otherwise, Bangkok has proven to be a happy hunting ground for Indian hockey as two of the three coveted Asian Games gold medals which the continental giants have claimed thus far have been won at the Thai capital.
After a couple of losses to Pakistan in the finals of the first two editions of the Games, the Indians were third-time lucky in 1966 beating their arch-rivals to claim the title for the very first time. The wait for the second gold, however, was agonizingly long, and the task was just as arduous.
The architect of the Bangkok resurrection
Post the 1-7 defeat to Pakistan in the Delhi Asiad followed by the ignominy of not making it to the finals of the competition for the first time in 1986 at Seoul, clearly, things were on the downward spiral for the side who had once ruled the world.
In 1998, the Indians bolstered by the presence of the charismatic Dhanraj Pillai and the ever-resolute Dileep Tirkey set up a summit clash with South Korea. At Bangkok, the battle for the gold medal came down to a nerve-wracking bout of penalty strokes and the man who stepped out to defend the Indian citadel in the tie-breaker was goalkeeper Ashish Ballal.
"No one can take away or experience the super-charged atmosphere I went through before I walked out to face the strokes. Those memories will be embedded in my mind forever," says Ballal as he reminisces about the two historic saves which earned India their second Asian Games gold medal after a gap of 32 years, and brought in its wake just the kind of resurrection which Indian hockey needed at the time.
Sixteen years later, in 2014, the Indians captured their third gold by beating Pakistan via a shootout in the Incheon final and were seemingly the overwhelming favorites to defend their title yet again when they landed at Jakarta last month.
After a blistering performance in the Champions Trophy in June post which the Indians rose to be the fifth-best side in the world, vis-a-vis Malaysia and Pakistan who were ranked far behind at the 12th and 13th rungs respectively, it was widely expected that Harendra Singh's side would romp home with ease.
Yet, after mauling their rivals in the pool stages with a barrage of 76 goals in 5 matches, the Indians were unable to get past Malaysia in the semifinal. Rahim Razie's PC equalizer in the last minute led to a shootout which further extended into sudden death, and a shocked nation is still coming to grips with losing a gold medal which many felt was theirs for the taking.
"We were outfoxed by Malaysia's defensive game - we did not open them out."
The hero of 1998, however, refuses to read too much into the last-minute lapses in spite of the fact that the Indians conceded a similar PC goal (albeit in more controversial circumstances) to Pakistan in the CWG at Gold Coast.
"Conceding and scoring goals in the last minutes has happened earlier and will continue to happen in future," opines the stalwart who took to coaching and founded the Ashish Ballal Hockey Academy in Bangalore.
Quite true - in fact, didn't the Indians do precisely that against England by scoring twice in the last two minutes in the pool match at Gold Coast?
"Being a team game, the team as a whole should be on the same page, not a few holding the ball and some players attacking," says the wise veteran as we turn the spotlight on Malaysia.
"In the Asian Games semifinal, we were a much better team than Malaysia. We should have settled the game much earlier scoring more goals. Having come down to the last minutes with a one-goal lead, we should have kept possession of the ball collectively as I stated."
"We had a good CT, finishing with the silver. There is no way I consider Malaysia a better team than us. We were outfoxed by a defensive game they adopted, and we did not open them out to close out the game. The last-minute equalizer and shootout loss is history and buried."
"Mental toughness comes with experience - seniors need to take the pressure"
Fitness, he stresses, is clearly not the issue as the Indians are now one of the fittest teams in the world. What then is the solution for surrendering well-earned leads at the end of regulation time?
"Fitness levels of most players are the best ever seen, but self-belief and strong mental toughness is something that comes with experience, and so it is the role of seniors to take the pressure in such situations."
For someone who has been closely associated with the game as a player and as a coach, and has seen hockey evolve over the years, the former goalkeeper cautions against unrealistic expectations and feels Sardar Singh's exit was hastened by the whimsical attitude of a few at the helm.
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, the Arjuna Awardee speaks his mind about the present state of affairs of Indian hockey, looks ahead to the World Cup, and gives us his take on the Indian versus Foreign coach debate.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
"You need to constantly keep evolving and be strong in the mind"
SK: During your playing days, there used to be extra time and penalty strokes in case of a stalemate at the end of regulation time. Now, of course, there is only a shootout. Which do you feel is a more efficient tie-breaker? Is a shootout luck, or can it be improved and perfected?
Ashish Ballal: It is not only the extra time or strokes that have changed since my time or even before that. The game played today is not the same as the one that was played during our golden era. The tie-breaker today gives the goalkeeper a better chance to make a save.
There is very little luck in any sport. The more you train, and counter train, the better you get. There is no perfection in modern hockey, as with videos and analysis, a player's choices and strengths can be studied. You need to constantly keep evolving and be strong in mind.
"The fear of the ball hurtling towards you like a missile has to be conquered"
SK: Do you feel goalkeepers like you could have done even better if specialized coaching had existed in your time? How would you rate young Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak - are they good enough to take Sreejesh's place in the future?
Ashish Ballal: A goalkeeper is a unique position to play. He can be taught basic foot moments and agility. He is taught to position himself to close down angles. All this is required more during his formative years. The fear of the ball hurtling towards you like a missile has to be conquered. When this is done, a goalkeeper rocks!
Specialised coaching will always help, as it covers various aspects of the defence, including calling out and organizing the defence.
I rate Sreejesh very highly - I do not see any replacement close to him. But then Sreejesh too waited for years to get his moment in the sun. Yes, there are three to four young goalkeepers showing promise.
"We are in the fifth position now and it is not easy to go to the top, that too being consistent."
SK: What are your thoughts on Sardar Singh's retirement and how would you rate our chances for the World Cup?
Ashish Ballal: I have followed Sardar Singh from when he was a young teenager training and playing at Bangalore for the Namdhari team. He may have slowed down a bit physically but not in the mind. Having got himself in shape after being dropped for the CWG, I believe he could have been kept till the World Cup. But then, we are not surprised by the whimsical decisions of the big boys.
With regard to our performance in the upcoming WC, I expect a top-six finish. The format is good to take care of a bad day at the office. We need to be prepared for the knockout stage.
I am surprised with a few wanting and expecting a podium finish. We are in the fifth position now, and it is not easy to go to the top and also be consistent. This nonsense of an ultimatum to the coach is uncalled for.
SK: What are the biggest changes that you see in the present set-up as compared to your playing days?
Ashish Ballal: I see a lot of importance given to fitness and strength. I see a big change in running after foreign coaches and running down our Indian coaches. I look forward to Indian coaches being paid for their professional services as much as their foreign counterparts.
Overseas experts must be retained only for Sports Medicine, conditioning, and physio. If required, overseas coaches should be brought in to train our SAI coaches and administrators.