With a lucid phrase, Amit Rohidas sums up the defensive philosophy of Graham Reid, the coach of the Indian men's hockey team.
"Opponents ka head down karna hai," Rohidas tells Firstpost. He's referring to the high-pressing style of hockey that Reid espouses which requires his players to pressure opponents with tackles when they are in possession. The idea is simple: rush the opponent when they get the ball, so they don't have the time to look up and pass to a teammate.
Reid himself has a slightly more expansive way of explaining his tactics and his playing philosophy. As part of the Australian and the Dutch men's hockey set-ups, he saw how teams were always wary about Indians 'coming at them quickly'.
"Sometimes when India play like that, they play very well. That's what I'm trying to get them to now do. One of the two major things for me is their ability to play quickly. I want them to not run all the time with the ball, but pass instead and go forward quickly. The other thing I expect from them is the concept of fighting back and never giving up. That's starting to show perhaps in the team," Reid said ahead of the FIH Pro League double-header against Belgium in Bhubaneswar this weekend.
But playing this breathless brand of hockey " a high-press style while defending, and attacking with pace " requires the team to be at the peak of its fitness, something which the Indians have mastered, according to Reid.
"The last fitness tests we did showed that the guys are as fit as they've ever been. This enables us to play at the speeds at which we have to in the modern game. It'll be a major factor in Tokyo 2020," says Reid.
At a recent Yo-Yo Test, six or seven Indian players " including Sumit and Mandeep Singh " touched the highest level of 23.8. Skipper Manpreet Singh reached 23.2. The Indian team's minimum target for goalkeepers is 20 while for outfield players, the target is between 22-23.
Sometime before the Jakarta Asian Games in 2018, hockey legend Sardar Singh made headlines for touching a score of 21.4 on the Yo-Yo Test, while India cricket captain Virat Kohli's score was 19.
The Yo-Yo Test " a handy way to evaluate a player's aerobic endurance " has become a standard test throughout the world with Australia and European hockey teams known to use it. In it, players have to sprint between two cones set 20m apart. They start running from one cone when a beep goes off, and have to reach the second one by the second beep. They then turn and run back to the starting cone before the next beep. Players get a 10-second rest at this point before they start all over again, this time at a faster speed as the beeps quicken in pace.
The test has gained infamy in India for the inability of many Indian cricketers like Yuvraj Singh, Washington Sundar, Ambati Rayudu, Mohammed Shami and Sanju Samson to pass the minimum qualifying mark. In 2019, the minimum qualification mark for Indian cricketers was reportedly raised from 16.1 to 17. It must be noted that cricket isn't a sport where the cardiovascular abilities of athletes are put to the test in the same way that a sport like hockey does, so a Sardar Singh scoring higher on the test than a Virat Kohli is not surprising.
But in a sport like hockey, the test can be a good indicator of a team's ability to play at high-intensities for 60 minutes. Against the Netherlands in the Pro League, India's enhanced level of fitness led them to twin victories. More importantly, India did everything Reid requires from them: Attack rivals with pace, overturn a deficit, and stifle the Dutch players with high-press hockey.
In the first game, they trounced the Dutchmen 5-2, in a match where India took the lead with just 13 seconds on the clock. Gurjant Singh stole the ball from a Dutch defender right after the pushback, and four passes later, he slotted the ball into the goal.
Gurjant's goal was faster than the ¡🙌
📹 | Watch #TeamIndia and Gurjant's maiden #FIHProLeague goal. 👇#IndiaKaGame #INDvNED #FIHProLeague #TeamIndia @FIH_Hockey @oranjehockey @IndiaSports @Media_SAI @sports_odisha pic.twitter.com/p0INsjaaMr
- Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) January 20, 2020
In the second game, India were 1-3 down, but mounted a comeback to level at 3-3 before winning the match in a shootout. The team also lost captain Manpreet for 10 minutes due to a high stick in the face of a Dutch player. Despite playing the majority of the third quarter with 10 men, the team clung on before scoring twice.
With two back-to-back games against the world champions Belgium followed by double-headers against Australia coming up in the next few days, Reid will hope his players can again stick to his philosophy of lowering the heads of their rivals. In more ways than one.