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March 14, 2000


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Positive signs from Azlan tourney

Cedric D'Souza

My prediction that India would go the entire way in the Azlan Shah hockey tournament and probably return with the gold medal did not come true. But if one goes by the team's performance, I was not too wrong. Eventually, we did return home with the bronze, when it could have so easily been silver or gold.

Let us look at the statistics during this tournament. All the teams were almost of the same calibre and most encounters were closely fought, with matches decided by a solitary goal difference. The scorelines mostly read 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, with really no big scoring match. The largest margin of victory was the 4-1 drubbing India meted out to Malaysia, the pretenders to the throne, in the play-off for the bronze medal.

A look at the records during the league phase will show that India played 6 matches, won 3 - versus Malaysia, Canada and New Zealand; lost 3 - to Germany, Pakistan and Korea; scored 10 goals - one each against Pakistan, Germany and Korea, two each against Malaysia and New Zealand, and three against Canada. It also conceded 10 goals - two each against Germany, Korea, Pakistan and Canada, and one each against New Zealand and Malaysia.

Thus, India finished third behind Pakistan and Korea and played Malaysia for the bronze whilst the top two fought it out for the gold. Pakistan just pipped Korea by a solitary goal, scored by Kamran Ashraf, though Korea dominated the game but found a stumbling block in Pakistan goalkeeper and new captain Ahmed Alam. In the end Pakistan did create history by being the first team to retain the Azlan Shah trophy.

India probably left their best for last when they blew Malaysia off by the largest margin of victory in the tournament, 4-1. If only the team had got its act together a little bit sooner!

So what went wrong?

The four areas which proved India's undoing were:

1. The inability to capitalise on scoring opportunities in open attacking play and during set pieces.

2. Too much carrying of the ball.

3. No re-tackling when dispossessed

4. Slack defensive play.

Indeed, these are some of the perennial problems which have still not been rectified.

Before I dwell on them, let us look at the positive side. The youngsters are shaping well, and with more experience and exposure will soon be a force to reckon with at the international level. Their confidence seems to be growing. A fine example is Deepak Thakur, who has shown many a defender a clean pair of heels as he reverse hits the ball beating many a world class but hapless goalkeepers. Then we see that Riaz, Siani and Gill did a marvelous job in midfield, feeding of the strikers and occasionally themselves breaking into the circle to take a shot at goal.

There is no doubt that India dominated against every team. Had the boys capitalised on the opportunities that came their way, there would have been no competition for them. Then there was the overindulgence in carrying the ball when a quick pass would have been more fruitful. Our players do not have the capacity to defend once they lose possession. That brings to naught the basic, common, modern game theory of re-tackling, putting pressure and closing down a player when you are dispossessed. Apart from this, there were times when our defense seemed out of sorts. This is the price we will continue pay till the young crop gets accustomed to the rigours of international hockey. For me, these flaws proved decisive in India not figuring among the top two in the tournament.

Why do we falter at the crucial juncture? Why can't our boys put the ball into the net when all the spadework has been done? There are a number of reasons I can attribute this too. A major one is lack of fitness and skill, but the most important is mental. One has to believe in one's ability. You have to be composed during execution without letting anxiety get the better of you; you have to be aggressive enough to cause a threat perception in your opponent, and be able to mentally train the mind for pressure cooker situations.

Do we train for these situations? My answer is no. Any professional coach knows that today’s sport is 80 per cent mental and 20 per cent skill during the execution of specifics. While we continue to dwell on the skill factor and overindulgence in unnecessary dribbling, we give little or no importance to the mental aspect or simulating game-like situations. The results of this will be a varying, fluctuating, graph instead of a consistent one. In short, periodic highs but many more lows.

The importance of psychological inputs and mind training are something that should become a culture with our sportsmen from the development stage and not only when they don the national colours. By that time it is far too late to change the set pattern in their minds especially as the sessions, if any, last only for the duration of the training camp and are not held on a regular basis.

Another aspect is the skill and the equilibrium to adapt to a given situation that you have not been trained for. It is all very easy to score goals against the goalkeeper during camps without any pressure or a defender/s breathing down your neck. But are the sessions simulated in the same manner as what happens during a match? I do not think so. If a player is not trained to score under situations that are game related then he will continue to flounder in crunch situations. I can't help but say that at most of our training camps we tend to play to train instead of training to play. There lies the basic difference between our methods and those of our western counterparts.

Another aspect worth mentioning is the fact that the players do not do any soul searching to identify their mistakes. How many of our players and coaches really study the team's play and make a critical analysis of its performance? I would not like to run down anyone's coaching methodology, but one must be with the times if one has to compete with the likes of Germany, Holland and Australia who are masters in planning and modern coaching. Let face the fact that our players are not trained to analyse their shortcomings or that of the opponent through a fine-tooth comb. In this world of professional sport, cursory studying will not help overcome the enemy. It is only those with the deepest insights and strategies who can come out trumps.

Which brings to mind the news that with around six months left for the Olympics the Indian Hockey Federation is keen on hiring a foreign coach to give specific inputs to our team. All very well, but I would like to ask the IHF which renowned international coach will be available at this late juncture? Isin't it strange thinking? But more on this subject in my next article.

Cedric D'Souza

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