As India’s chief coach, the team's mystical nature continues to evoke the same emotion in Graham Reid. (PTI Photo)
India’s unpredictability would ‘scare’ Graham Reid when he managed the dugouts of the Australian and Dutch teams. “You didn’t know what they were going to do,” Reid, who has a reputation of doing impeccable homework on his opponents, says. “And that was a very powerful thing.”
As India’s chief coach, the team's mystical nature continues to evoke the same emotion in him. Just that he now seems genuinely scared. “Now, I would like them like them to be more predictable so I know what’s gonna happen,” he laughs.
Reid is talking in context of the players’ decision making. It’s a tricky terrain. One coach, Sjoerd Marijne, lost his job because he tried to make players think for themselves rather than rely on the coach’s instructions all the time. But the fact that two of the last three coaches made this one of their biggest priorities points to how crucial this element is.
It can’t be denied that India are a different, more confident team, entering this decade compared to the previous one. Captain Manpreet Singh points to his team’s world ranking (number 5) to assert how far they have come. “And this is an era where there’s very little that separates the top 8 nations. It shows how much we have improved,” he says.
But all the talks of ‘improvement’ seem hollow when you look at India’s performances in the tournaments that matter – 12th and 8th at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics respectively, 9th and 6th at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, and overall winning only six out of the 33 matches against the top teams in FIH events since the 2014 Champions Trophy.
A lot of times, the closeness of the 27 matches India did not win is cited as an indicator of the progress team has made. Manpreet, for example, said on Friday how the margins of defeat have narrowed. Reid was quick to add that the 2018 World Cup quarterfinal between India and the Netherlands ‘could have gone either way’. But it ended 2-1 in favour of the Dutch. And as is the case in most high-pressure matches, India defeat could be attributed to one moment of brain freeze, poor decision making at a crucial juncture of the match.
To get a discussion started on this issue, and a few others, Reid held a performance appraisal of sorts for all players just before Christmas. It had roughly 60 questions, ranging from players’ skill-set to communication and even diet, on which the players rated themselves and each other.
“So one of the questions was on execution of passes… You might be able to pass the ball beautifully, your skill is very good. But the decision making behind that pass, isn't always as good. Right?” Reid, who took over as the coach last year, explains. “You think you're eight out of 10 but your peer thinks you are seven out of 10. So that gives you some kind of an indication.”
He categorises the players in three – “the alpha males, the ones who are extremely confident in what they do; the ones in the middle and those who like to be told everything.”
Reid isn’t looking to create more alpha males in the team. Instead, his quest is to get a balance between belief and doubt. “You need belief because that will help you make good decisions, but not too much of it because that can make you over confident,” he says. “At the same time, some doubt is good as it keeps you on the edge and avoids complacency. We need to get that balance.”
It might be too much theorizing but that’s practically what Reid could do in a year where India did not play even one top 10 opponent in a competitive match. The decision to not play in the first edition of the Pro League – a tournament reserved for the world’s top 8 hockey teams – robbed India of quality match practice in the pre-Olympic year.
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However, after Pakistan withdrew from the event owing to financial problems, a slot opened up and India did not waste time in getting on the bus this time. For India, the Pro League will come as a boon. Ahead of the 2012 and 2016 Games, the management messed up the preparation in the build up to the Olympics, leaving the players jaded when the actual tournament began.
The Pro League, on the other hand, will give India a chance to play each of the world’s best teams twice each. “It sorts out scheduling concerns for a coach. In the Olympic year, you are always thinking… ‘who do we play? Do you really want to play the team that you're playing? The teams from your pool (at the Olympics)? Not in your pool? So in that sense, Pro League is nice. We don’t have to worry about any of that,” Reid says, on the eve of India’s debut in the competition against the Netherlands.
And so they are back again. In the sunny-in-the-day, breezy-by-night Bhubaneswar. At a venue — Kalinga Stadium — where the visitors will feel as much as home as India. Both, talking about the double-header in Bhubaneswar but looking at Tokyo, where they will have contrasting ambitions — for the demanding Dutch fans, nothing less than a gold would do. For India, who enter every Olympics promising the sky, the challenge will be to walk the talk.