When the news filtered through from Santiago in March 2008, it was a shock to every one. It was like a football world cup without Brazil. For the first time in 80 years, an Olympic hockey tournament would not have India as one of the competitors. To make a mockery of it, Narendra Batra, former vice-president of IHF, commented:
“Is anyone really concerned?” he asked. “The sports ministry has already demoted hockey as a priority sport although it remains our national sport. Gill and the others will lie low for a few days and the debacle will be forgotten soon. We will be back to square one.”
Both Batra and the coach Joaquim Carvalho resigned. Since 2008, there has been a steady stream of farcical events – the federation was derecognised by the IOA, a new federation Hockey India set up, then KPS Gill hit back with a court ruling re-establishing IHF,a near strike by the hockey players just before the World Cup in 2010, three different coaches …
Now, Michael Nobbs is the man tasked with responsibility of guiding the fortunes of the country. Handheld by FIH, India got themselves into a qualification tournament where the best team was France whom India beat 8-1 in the finals.
But there is a reason to keep that cynicism aside (at least bring it down a bit). The team has been purged of anyone and everyone who had any baggage of the past. Nobbs, who has always been an admirer of the Asian skills, brought back Indian stickwork as the central weapon for the team. Instead of pushing Indian hockey players to play like Europeans, he is now telling them to play the way they want to – like the way India played when winning all those gold medals. The change he is bringing is in two areas – fitness and mental character. There is still much to do. For starters, the team needs to understand the value of discipline, to restrain themselves from the temptation of lapsing into old habits.
The story of his travails is a deja vu of sorts. The same pig-headedness of the federation, the egos of “star” players, the availability of resources, the constant questioning of his decisions, etc. That he has been able to push himself through is itself a cause for raising of one’s hopes. (In a way the article reads like a template of sorts – hostile / indifferent organisation, confused players, shame and humiliation of the team, enter the new coach facing mission impossible – search for similar stories in Sports Illustrated, you will see what I mean)
One is of course quite clear here (and Nobbs himself sets the expectations). This team has potential but as yet unready. Besides the ticket to London, there were two good things that came out of the Delhi qualifiers – the consistent thrashing of lower ranked teams (something that Indians have not seen for decades) and the foundation of a young team with strong nucleus of Ignace Singh, Sardar Singh (selected in a World All Star XI), Raghunath, Bharat Chhetri and Sandeep Singh, considered one of the best drag flick exponents in the world. But they need atleast another year or so to really get into a strong rhythm and understanding. To expect this team to storm the tournament at London will be unfair on them, their youthful enthusiastic vows notwithstanding.
“Under Michael Nobbs (coach), the team’s performance has gone up. If you have seen the Olympic qualifiers, you must have noticed it. We are playing attacking hockey, the old Indian style. I am sure we will do well in London and win a medal for the country,” Sandeep, the star drag—flicker, said.
Nobbs has put a gold medal at 2016 Rio de Janeiro as the target. At London we should expect to be in the top 6 and be treated as a contender from here on.