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August 10, 1999

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Whither, Indian hockey?

Cedric D'Souza

After resigning as National coach in November 1996, I have been writing a few articles, rather sporadically I should say, regarding hockey, and so it came as a pleasant surprise when Rediff.com asked me whether I would write a weekly or bimonthly column for them. My initial reaction to this offer was skepticism! Because in the past selective editing of my articles in the media changed the perspective of my piece. In the end, my decision to write is based on my love for the game from which I have derived so much joy.
This article is based on my views and thoughts since the middle of 1998.

History:
Well, after a disastrous World cup at Utrecht in May 1998, there was a lot of mudslinging and accusations leveled between the players and the then coach, V. Bhaskaran. Subsequently, Bhaskaran made a hasty exit, and in-came M K Kaushik for the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Kaushik insisted on the senior (I would prefer to call them mature) players being a part of his team, and he did bring about team unity and saw that there was no rift between the juniors and the seniors. Indeed, he had a harmonious team. The key was his ability to man manage.

The results that came under his tenure were quite creditable - a semi-final place at the Commonwealth Games and the gold medal at the Asian Games after 32 long years, even given the fact that the Olympics and World Cup are a different cup of tea.

We now have the Indo-Pak series and the German tour behind us. The rested players continue to be 'rested'. The accent continues to be on youth, more youth, different youth, and youth at the expense of the mature.

Grooming of youth:
One reads that the Indian Hockey Federation is pinning its faith on youth and is in the re-building phase for 2000 and beyond. With the planned international exposure, confidence and belief within the IHF circles is high that these youngsters will deliver the goods and be adequate replacements for the ailing senior stars.

Now, if we are grooming a team comprising youth, then why is it that every youth or national team with youth - that leaves the shores of India - is different? We seem to be trying out new players on every tour. But are we really giving the young lot a fair chance to prove their mettle?

This chopping and changing just goes to prove that we have not yet come to a concerted decision, and the IHF is still groping in the dark as to which players are good enough to be in the team for Sydney, a team in which many slots still seem vacant.

Team:
I do believe that a team must be a blend of youth and mature, experienced players. The stalwarts are role models on one hand and crowd pullers on the other. The stalwarts must be treated as such and they, on the other hand, must lead by example both on and off the ground.

Change:
Yes, change is necessary. But the question is the timing, and to what extent? Also, do we need to make the changes en masse? Would it not be a better policy to weed players out gradually over an extended period of time?

I firmly believe that changes are warranted and justified only when the replacements are on par or better than those being replaced. The time for experiments should end soon and a homogenous composition established at the very earliest.

Selection:
The criterion for players being selected for the national training camps is their performance at the domestic tournaments. Therefore, any player who performs par excellence should then be considered for selection. Once they are selected to the national team, it is their international performance that either cements them into the team or sees them dropped - - basically international exposure differentiates the men from the boys.

However, it is sad to note that the senior six/eight (mature) players have not been selected, nor sent on any tours abroad to prove themselves. In my book, it is mandatory that the players be exposed to international competition on a regular basis so as to make assessments of their strengths and weaknesses.

One must take cognizance to the fact that a team does not consist of a bunch of 16 individual players, senior or junior? The key word is teamwork - which comes only when the team works together as a collective unit, thereby formulating a winning combination, be it at the training camps or on tours. It takes years of interaction and playing together to come up with a good blend, and set up a harmonious combination both on and off the ground. Hence, the likes of the six/eight players should also be touring abroad, thereby giving the federation, and themselves, the opportunity to evaluate whether they are still good enough to represent the country. It will also give the IHF the scope to carefully examine the blend of youth and experience.

Misconceptions:
Apart from these suggestions, I would like to clear the air of certain misconceptions that is floating around about fitness, and also present to you the norms used by other international teams vis--vis their retaining senior/mature players.

Fitness:
The theory that a player is unfit if he cannot play a full match is a misconception. In today's hockey it does not hold much water. Firstly, all hockey players have and maintain basic levels of fitness, which can be worked on and improved upon if the need arises. Secondly, with the rolling substitution rule -- a la basketball -- players do not need to play out the entire match on the trot. They can now be substituted whenever the coach deems it necessary, thereby permitting the coach to utilize his players in bursts to the maximum effect.

International teams' norms:
Take any country in the world, they persist with their senior/mature players as long as they maintain basic levels of fitness, are good enough and hungry to face the rigours of international hockey. They blend their youth around their mature players, who are the mainstays in the team's build-up, thereby maintaining a steady balance. Persistence with their players and coaches helps them maintain continuity and progress. After all, the word continuity ensures standardization and uniformity.

Our coaches are changed so very often that players have to readjust to the new coaching patterns prescribed by the new coach. But if there were a proper uniform structure in coaching, then there would be some sort of continuity.

Look at the west. They have a superb professional and uniform coaching format that is followed by all, right from the top - the national coach, down to the low level club coach. This guarantees that there is smooth transition from one age group to the next, be it at club or national level, and also when new players are to be inducted into the national team. The voids, be it in combination play, training, skill, mental approach, thinking etc, that are normally a part and parcel of any team that looses experienced players is minimized if not eradicated.

Publicity:
I would like to point out that excessive adverse publicity that comes hockey's way shuns away potential sponsors. The game's image is already badly tarnished. To ensure that it does not further suffer, a balance should be maintained in terms of being too critical - healthy, positive, constructive and unbiased criticism.

IHF's image:
Then, there are some journalists who feel that there are far too many vagaries that prevail within the policies laid down by the IHF, which many a time leads them on a wild goose chase. They claim that the IHF's inconsistent remarks and issuance of contradictory statements forces them to pursue the matter in pursuit of the truth -- which, when printed, is not too happily acknowledged by the IHF. A point well-proved by the IHF's decision regarding the "Super 6/8" -- a controversial topic that has everyone even today in a state of flux and suspicion.

Life cannot be a bed of roses -- one has to accept the thorns to value the rose. So, too, must the IHF learn to take the good with the bad and accept both positive and negative media mileage.

Sponsorship:
Cricket has hogged every nook and corner in our country with its aggressive marketing and professional administration, which has led to astronomical figures in terms of sponsorship. This has come basically because the cricket administrators have been successful in getting their sport on television. Why cannot hockey take a leaf out of cricket's book? For this, I suggest that the IHF appoint thorough marketing professionals who will sell the game on television and give our national sport a corporate image, thereby luring sponsors and, hopefully, making a small dent in cricket' s massive kitty.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that it is not my intention to pass judgement on people and their functioning. I sincerely hope this article will be taken for its true worth -- constructive criticism, without prejudice -- for the betterment of our national sport.

Let's hope someone is listening!!

Former India hockey coach and Indian Hockey Federation executive director (coaching) Cedric D'Souza debuts as a Rediff columnist.

Cedric D'Souza

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