It's that time in an Olympic circuit when the focus bounces back onto the national hockey team as they train and aim for yet another tilt at the Games. It's a year away. And India still need to clear the one last qualifying hurdle left. But assuming they do - chances are more than less - the men's team will have first-hand knowledge of the stadium and conditions when they play the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Conditions and turf do matter but, in a sport, where the surface is largely similar for pace and bounce, an intrinsic team quality needs to stand out rather than knowledge of synthetic carpets and weather patterns.
Amidst other test events in Tokyo and the tough heat, 32 degrees to a high of 36, the Indian men's team, who shouldn't be bothered about the rising temperatures, would do well to look up the meaning of the word pragmatic. Sport, universally, is made up of different philosophies, dogmas, theories, convictions and of course, opinion. Till the 60s and early 70s, it was quite straightforward for an Indian team to play and prepare according to the simplistic but highly effective 5-3-2-1 pattern of play. Balkishen Singh brought in the first changes " an all-out play that meant defence and offence with pace being the key factor. It worked initially but flopped at the '92 Barcelona Games. Not much change was seen thereafter with MP Ganesh, MK Kaushik and V Bhaskaran. Cedric D'Souza changed the formula bringing in a compact defence and playing with a lone forward upfront. Then came the foreigners and styles changed, evolved but leaving the players slightly overwhelmed. Coaches changed faster than styles and philosophies.
When Graham Reid took over after the World Cup, one wondered what could be the logical game plan for a team that knew everything except for the highly defensive, hold the ball, German system. In Tokyo, Reid needs an answer to that. Not because it needs to work but because the players need to be convinced that Reid is the answer. Pessimism is now a habit in Indian hockey. The past can be ignored but not denied. Some of these players have played under multiple national coaches. They hear and apply the instructions. The solution is belief. Otherwise, Sjoerd Marijne would still be the coach. The players rejected his theory. To be fair to the Dutchman, he needed more time. Reid needs to change that mindset. It's not about winning hearts but about controlling the mind that goes to the turf and applies itself. If the results are coming, belief will come. It's a brick by brick building of a structure. It's another matter that the powers to be never understood that structures need a foundation along with time. For quick-fire results, they sacrificed players and coaches. Reid needs to understand that in the Indian system, patience has no value. Not even results, otherwise a Champions Trophy final should have been enough for Harendra Singh.
The sport is so much about fine lines, split-second thinking, creating inch-perfect passes, anticipating, understanding, all of this tempered with a philosopher's wisdom that gives creative balance to a team. See a re-run of the 2018 World Cup final between Holland and Belgium and one would understand, the intricacies and the elaborateness of the preparation. Belgium is a classic example of long-term belief. In their tardiness of running this sport, Hockey India has passed on the worst to its players.
In Tokyo, there will be two big players missing " Manpreet Singh and PR Sreejesh, both being asked to rest as a big season unfolds with the final Olympic Qualifier in November. Resting Manpreet makes sense. Sreejesh, at the moment, needs competition and the return of that rock-solid belief that took a beating in the World Cup. The one player, who could have made a difference, SV Sunil, is back, hopefully with the injury healed. He is a game-changer but for long utilised as a man of speed. It will be interesting to see how Reid plays him. Will we see a new Sunil, using pace and then releasing it for Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh and Gursahibjit Singh? It's a gamble to play without Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh but Indian selectors have always loved a wager when it came to key selections. However, one needs to understand when the coach explains that there are no FIH points in a test event so the need to see more players before the qualifying event.
Japanese coach, Siegfried Aikman, says he is looking for more balance from his team in front of home fans. "Balance is important," says Aikman. "Keeping the balance when highly challenged is the key, I think. It's not only about the ranking, but it's also about playing at the level of the higher-ranked teams. They are the ones to beat."
India have been busy since Reid came. The Australian has had opportunities to see the players who would finally deliver. "Look, we started back in April with a tour to Australia that was a good learning experience," explains Reid. "We learnt a lot and l learnt a lot as a coach too. Since then we've also had the Bhubaneswar tournament with the Series Final where we were able to qualify for the next round of qualification for the Olympic Games. So, that was really good. And in the last 3-4 weeks, we've been training very hard in Bangalore. I have been very happy. We are ready to now go for this Olympic Test event."
For the last so many years, one of the grey areas has been the lack of anticipation when you lose the ball. It happens when the structure moves out of place. In the 2018 Champions Trophy, one reason why it was so difficult for Australia to find gaps and opening in the Indian defence was because the structure didn't give away. That, unfortunately, wasn't the scenario at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2018 World Cup. India love moving up, from the flanks and with direct runs through the middle of the pitch. But for every Surender Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh moving up, you need a player as good as them at the back, shielding that gap. Those moments are when we get punished.
Reid needs that time to be able to push his theory of what he believes India needs to do to come back into the reckoning for a consistent podium finish. "Yeah, it's always difficult to tell," says Reid. "It's a slow, iterative process, growth and it's never in one line. So, I think the players are now getting to understand the way I like to play hockey and I think that would bear fruit in the next 2 or 3 months."
Without Manpreet, the aim is not to test the midfield. The premise is to speed up the process of the midfielders to think laterally. Vivek Prasad, Nilakanta Sharma, Hardik Singh will carry the burden. But it's an opportunity to understand and create the play without the main playmaker. It's a young team but it's also important to understand that being young is no more an excuse. Raise your levels or burn.
India play Malaysia (12), New Zealand (8) and Japan (16) before the top two teams play the four-nation final. There are no points but winning the tournament is important for Reid and India's progress. Winning is always good, especially when the all-important best of two-match qualifier is in November. Of course, there will be changes after the Tokyo Test event. Yes, it's difficult to understand the range of the changes and how many of this group and the one sitting in India would make it to the qualifier team and beyond. "I don't like to foretell what's going to happen," says Reid. "I think in the two 2 months, will be able to tell you who will be in that team. So, I am going to leave it to the team's performance and the selectors."
Charles Sanders Pierce never played field hockey. He was an American philosopher, logician and the father of pragmatism. Pierce said the essence of belief is the establishment of a habit. That belief was about action and what you do defines what you believe. Decades have slipped past, national teams have aspired and failed. Reid should understand he is just not the national coach; the brief goes beyond that. In Tokyo at the Test event, in a team that doesn't lack skills, expertise and finesse, he needs to drill faith and belief.