• The inside story of how India's men's hockey team

  • The Men's Champions Trophy in 2003 was being held in Amstelveen in fine August weather. As if keeping in line with the perfect conditions, the Indian team that arrived on those Dutch shores also had an inspiring freshness about it. The senior core of the team was supplemented by excellent junior players who had seasoned fully after winning the Junior World Cup in November 2001.

    Though not all results went their way, the performance of the team was widely recognised as commendable. Their stand out performance was what I consider the last hurrah of the Asian style of hockey where the team ran out 7-4 winners against Pakistan.

    The Men's Champions Trophy in 2003 was being held in Amstelveen in fine August weather. As if keeping in line with the perfect conditions, the Indian team that arrived on those Dutch shores also had an inspiring freshness about it. The senior core of the team was supplemented by excellent junior players who had seasoned fully after winning the Junior World Cup in November 2001.

    Though not all results went their way, the performance of the team was widely recognised as commendable. Their stand out performance was what I consider the last hurrah of the Asian style of hockey where the team ran out 7-4 winners against Pakistan.

    Where it all went wrong

    With the 2004 Olympics in Athens less than a year away, it was easy to be optimistic then about the team’s chances of a medal. However, in the weeks and months that followed, all that could possibly go wrong, did. To be brutally honest, horrifically wrong.

    Jugraj Singh, who was India's answer to Pakistan's star penalty corner specialist Sohail Abbas, and whose drag flicks were regarded as world class, met with a near fatal accident and did not go to Athens at all. Then, Dhanraj Pillay, the unrivalled superstar of the sport, accused some of the junior players of intentionally not passing him the ball.

    Rajinder Singh Senior, who had earned himself a promotion after winning the Junior World Cup as coach, was unceremoniously shown the door. A few months before the team was to leave for the Olympics, Gerard Rach, India’s first-ever foreign coach, was appointed.

    Rach was from Germany, a country where the style of hockey played is as different from India's as chalk to cheese. The extremely fit Bimal Lakra and the defensively solid Kanwalpreet Singh were dropped. Injury and ill health stalked the Indian camp like a plague. The team was a shambles.

    A period of stagnation

    The truth is, it would have taken amazing foresight to realise what was actually happening. The incidents after Amstelveen set in motion a chain of events that would culminate on that disastrous day in 2008 in picturesque Santiago in Chile, when India lost the all-important final of the Olympic qualifiers to Great Britain –and, for the first time in its illustrious history, failed to qualify for the Olympics.

    Between Athens and Santiago, Pillay would never wear the Indian sky blue jersey again. India was to lose to China at the Asian Games in Doha and record its worst-ever finish, and eventually also drop out of the top ten in the world rankings for the first time ever. What completed this circle of hell was, of course, not qualifying for the Olympics. Indian hockey was not merely falling behind the rest of the world, it was hurtling towards the dark ages.

    The first signs of resurgence

    Something had to give, and after serious allegations of corruption against officials in the Indian Hockey Federation, it was de-recognised. Soon after, Hockey India came into being. There was one crucial difference between the two sets of administrators.

    It related to a question that had haunted Indian hockey ever since the playing surface was changed from grass to artificial pitches.

    Should India hire foreign coaches and experts? While the IHF had only dabbled with the idea of having a foreign coach once in a while, HI was in no doubt. Thus, with the appointment of Spaniard Jose Brasa in 2009, Indian hockey entered a new era in its history.

    Despite a completely avoidable and embarrassing merry-go-round, which saw India run through six different coaches in six years, there was a silver lining, a common thread that ran through all the appointments. Each and every one of these coaches had an unflinching belief in the crucial role that sports science, professionalism, nutrition, tactical analysis and high performance fitness play, and how they were to be used if India were to get back into the thick of things.

    Entering the new age

    Ice baths, visualisation techniques, protein shakes, top of the line imported recovery drinks, protein bars, heart rate monitors, individual Global Positioning System trackers, sugar free diets became the order of the day. Players could not hide injuries anymore – a filthy yet rampant habit – and nor could they beat night time curfews.

    Now, most players are used to having a chip attached to them, recording off-field physiological behaviour such as deep Rapid Eye Movement sleep, breathing patterns and fitness levels. Years of underachievement and the burden of history had steadily chipped away at the confidence of the team.

    A full-time psychologist was brought in (the recently held camp in Bangalore had two of them) to toughen the players mentally. A professional video analyst broke down videos into concise slides, helping the players understand the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.

    Diets were customised for each player so they could play at their best without breaking down with injuries. The Indian hockey player now knew his carbohydrates from his proteins. Fitness levels of the players began to rise exponentially.

    The high altitude training facility at Shilaroo in Himachal was widely used to raise endurance levels and to develop the capacity to recover faster after intense training sessions. High performance experts such as David John and Matt Eyles not only changed the training manuals and diets of the players, but also more importantly, worked on their mindset.

    Another reason that helped enhance the teams performance was the introduction of the Hockey India League in 2013. For a team to be fighting fit and battle-hardened, it has to play about 30 international matches a year. As India plummeted in the world rankings, it also lost out on international competition.

    This gap was covered by the HIL which guaranteed high quality competition at home. Players who did not even make it to the probables' list now found themselves sharing changing rooms with the very best in the world, and taking instructions from master coaches such as Barry Dancer and Cedric D’souza.

    This led expanded the pool of players competing for the limited number of places in the national team. Not very long ago, an injury to a consistent performer like Birendra Lakra, the mainstay of the Indian defence, would have led to utter disarray. This time, however, he has been seamlessly replaced by the ferociously efficient Surinder Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh, whose rise from the junior ranks has been nothing short of meteoric.

    The results began to show

    India’s climb up the world rankings was neither rapid nor spectacular. Instead, it was slow, steady and assured. The year 2014 will go down as the year of resurgence. India won the gold at the Incheon Asian Games after 16 years, and, more important, became the first team to qualify for Rio.

    That performance was topped by beating Australia at home 3-1. By the time the year was out, India had beaten every team ranked above it. Then came the big two. India had not won anything major since bagging a bronze medal at the 1982 Champions Trophy. The gold at Moscow was followed up by decades of underachievement, decline and stagnation (in that order). At the Hockey World League, India beat the Netherlands to take bronze in a scintillating encounter of hockey that reduced many to tears.

     

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