For the first time in 80 years, India had failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. With the team making the cut this time, will the tide truly have turned for India’s national game? M. S. Unnikrishnan reports on the preparations in the run up to the Olympics
Indian hockey’s moment of trial

London Olympics-2012 (July 27-August 12) will be a catalyst for the revival of Indian hockey. A medal there will be a decisive factor in giving a new lifeline to the game.

India mauled France 8-1 to clinch an Olympic berth
India mauled France 8-1 to clinch an Olympic berth Tribune photo: Mukesh Aggarwal

The Indian team gave a standout display in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (February 18-26) in Delhi, topping the six-team league with an all-win record, to book a berth for London. They scored 44 goals, averaging seven-plus a match, to record a resounding sequence of wins, which has given a big boost to the game.

Shivendra Singh in action during the match against South Africa. The match, played in New Delhi recently, was a draw 3-3
Shivendra Singh in action during the match against South Africa. The match, played in New Delhi recently, was a draw 3-3 Tribune photo: Manas Ranjan Bhui

India had failed to play in an Olympic proper — Beijing 2008 — for the first in 80 years, and hockey had a roller-coaster ride since then, till they sealed an 8-1 victory against France, to clinch an Olympic berth.

Now, much hope and faith is being pinned on the present team, to give a makeover to Indian hockey, and recapture the lost glory. A good show, or at least thereabout in London, will signal a bright future for the game as hockey continues to be a popular sport in the country, still.

And in this revival of the game, the role being played by Australian coach Michael Nobbs is no mean one. When Nobbs was appointed  the chief coach of the men’s  team eight months ago, the team was in a disarray — be it in selection, administration as well as discipline.

Sardar Singh donned the captaincy mantle when India mauled France 8-1 to win the Olympic qualifier, as regular captain and goalie Bharat Kumar Chetri was benched.

Sandeep Singh (26) and Sardar Singh (25) have been former captains, and both hold out high hopes as India aim for an Olympic medal.

Nobbs had set out on his job in right earnest, despite a pinch of scepticism he nursed initially. Within seven months, he has brought in a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the team. He has managed to knit a winning combination out of talented, but improperly trained, players like Sandeep Singh (drag-flick exponent), mid-fielder Sardar Singh, and forwards like S.V. Sunil, Shivendra Singh, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Yuvraj Walmiki, Tushar Khandker and Danish Mujtaba, to mix a fine blend of attack and defence, to fox the best of defence, and blunt the best of attacks.

India have had a glorious history in hockey, winning  eight gold, one silver and two bronze medals, from their Olympic odyssey. They hauled six golds in a row, from their Olympic debut at Amsterdam (1928) to Melbourne (1956). Some of the golds came when India and Pakistan were one.

But after Partition, hockey took a major hit, and the 1960 Rome Olympics saw India abdicate the throne, though they regained the gold four years later in Tokyo (1964), hockey was never the same again in India. India slumped to bronze at Mexico (1968) and Munich (1972), and barring a gold at the depleted Moscow Games (1980, when the Western nations boycotted the Olympics for Russia’s intervention of Afghanistan), Indian hockey has gasped for breath and sustenance.

The present Indian team, a mix of youth and experience, have in it them to give a good shot at the London Olympics, and Nobbs’ motivating, encouraging, engaging  and attacking style, is expected to fetch the team much gain.

But the administration of the game is still beset with problems, with the International Hockey Federation (FIH), its acolytes in India, Hockey India (HI), the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Sports Ministry playing their little roles to spoil the broth.

The IHF is going ahead with its cash-rich World Series Hockey (WSH), disregarding the threats of censure by the FIH. Hockey India, at the behest of the world body, has reigned in the top players from playing in it, despite signing contracts with Nimbus, promoters of WSH — the exceptions being former captain Rajpal Singh and ace forward Arjun Halappa, who have been excluded from the Olympic probables’ list.

Indian hockey can climb the next stage, and consolidate its position, only if all the stakeholders work together, for the promotion and progress of the game — to lift it to the lofty heights of yore. And London would provide a perfect platform for the game’s revival in India.

Coaching Coup

When Michael Nobbs was appointed the chief coach of the Indian men’s hockey team about eight months ago, many eyebrows were raised. His previous experience was with the Japanese women team. His presentation made it clear that he would adapt the Australian style of attacking hockey, which was akin to India’s. Nobbs, who played as centre half when Australia  finished fourth in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, has been given a free hand till the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

Nobbs understood the peculiarities of Indian hockey, and realised the need to make some drastic changes. When he took charge, taming the errant players was a serious problem, that he confronted with his first success when India emerged champions at Asian Champions at Ordos (Argentina), six weeks after he took charge of the team.

India defeated Pakistan via a tie-breaker in the title clash. Nobbs played Sreejesh and the experienced Bharat Kumar Chetri in alternate matches in the four-nation tournament, and the experience gained by the two custodians stood the country in good stead in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

When he got the job of the chief coach, Nobbs demanded that he should be allowed to bring physiologist David John, as lack of fitness was an area of concern for the Indian players.

Nobbs has brought a qualitative change in the coaching modes and methods. There is also a blend of experience and freshness in the  Indian team, as Nobbs and his deputy have allowed young talent like Sreejesh, S. V. Sunil, Yuvraj Walmiki, Kolthar Singh, Shivendra Singh,  Sandeep Singh and Sardar Singh, to flourish.

Nobbs is preparing the junior team for the 2013 World Cup. — MSU