Roelant Oltmans has seen it all. The Dutchman took the Netherlands’ women’s team to the World Cup trophy in 1990 and then took the men’s team to gold triumphs at the Olympics in 1996 and the World Cup in 1998. The 62-year-old was also behind Pakistan’s fifth place finish – where they beat India en route – at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Since 2013, Oltmans has been plotting Indian hockey’s resurgence, first as the High Performance Director of Hockey India and then, from 2015 onward, as the coach of the men’s national team. Indian hockey has seen a revival of sorts under him – they were the first team to qualify for the 2016 Olympics after winning gold at the Asian Games in 2014, finished third at the Hockey World League Final in 2015, and, more recently, won a historic silver in the Champions Trophy in June 2016, their best ever performance in the competition.
Former hockey legend Viren Rasquinha has hailed Oltmans’s contributions to the team, pointing out that the Dutchman has “one of the sharpest brains in world hockey”. In a conversation with Scroll.in, Oltmans opened up about his plans for the Olympics and even shed some light on what went into appointing PR Sreejesh captain.
With barely days to go until the start of Rio 2016, how is the preparation going?
We are almost in Rio! On Friday we fly out to Brazil. That will be the last part of the preparation, which has had ups and downs. That is normal. You have good spells and bad spells, but the team has good prospects. That is the most important thing.
What are India’s chances at the Olympic Games? What should the aim be?
That’s tricky. Let’s look at it from match to match – that’s what I always do. The goal is to reach the quarter-finals. That should be target number one. Once you reach the quarter-finals you are in a new tournament, it’s all knock-out. You play and the winner progresses. We need to get some points in the first five matches to get to the last eight.
What’s the key game in the group phase?
The first match is the key game. That can allow you to get the tournament off to a good start. Ireland is a difficult opponent. They finished third at the last European Championship. It’s the key game straightaway.
Expectations are high in India – more than just a quarter-final place.
Yes, dreaming is fine, but you need to keep a sense of perspective and reality. It’s clear that expectations are high after good results in the Asian Games, the Champions Trophy and the World Hockey League. That’s obvious and we don’t need to run away from that. But there are no guarantees at the Olympic Games.
You highlight the good results. What has caused the renaissance of Indian hockey?
That is due to a combination of factors. New policies spurred the renaissance. Hockey India co-opted the policy of the Indian Hockey Federation in 2009. That was the starting point. In the meantime, the management and in particular the current president [Narinder Batra] has a clear policy of introducing and working with foreigners to improve, on the one hand, the physical condition of the players and to integrate, on the other hand, playing concepts and styles that were already considered normal abroad.
Finally, he also invested in talent development – from the current group, nine players were at the Youth World Championship in 2013. A new generation, who benefited from a different [kind of] youth training, is coming.
It involved modernising the style of play?
Yes, that was a key element, and the implementation was aligned with expertise from abroad.
Can you elaborate a bit on the performances of current captain and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh? He’s become a rock over the years and has often single-handedly ensured India don’t concede at critical moments.
He distinguished himself in a number of turnover games, notably at the Asian Games and in the World Hockey League, in the game for the third and fourth place. He got a lot of credit, and rightfully so. He did that very well, but it’s never one player who is responsible for the overall result of the team. It’s one of our strengths that we act as a team. There is great chemistry among the players. They are both positive and critical of each other when required. That’s important and this team is doing it in a good way.
There was a bit of controversy over the fact that long-time captain Sardar Singh’s captaincy was taken away and given to Sreejesh. While you’ve mentioned that the team is very well-knit, can you give us an idea of what went into this decision?
Well, there is no controversy within the team, because it was clearly and openly discussed. Indian society is hierarchal. When there is a boss or leader, then they always turn to the leader who has to supply the solutions. So the whole team looks at Sardar – “You fix it now, because we are in trouble!” I don’t believe in such a method.
Players need individual responsibility. As long as Sardar remained captain, that would not have happened. Other players would have kept looking at him. When Sreejesh became captain with a number of vice-captains below him, a more collective responsibility would ensue. We tested that in the Champions Trophy and it worked wonderfully well. I think that will be the case again in Rio.
The Indian team has been playing a swift, counter-attacking style of play over the past few months. Is that something you’ve consciously tried to incorporate into the team?
I don’t agree. Honestly, I think that we play a far more attacking game than most teams in the world. There is a general tendency to play very defensively, opponents who camp in their own half to then play the counter. India tries to take the initiative and create danger from possession, but we combine that with good moments and turnovers. Statistics – and if you look at possession stats – show that we have more possession in most games than the opponent. You can’t say we are a counter-attacking team.
But the presence of young pacy players like Manpreet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Nikkin Thimmiah makes it easier to attempt that sort of strategy.
We have quick forwards. There is also SV Sunil. Nikkin and Sunil, in particular, are extremely quick forwards. Mapreet and Harmanpreet are more of midfielders and defenders, but in the forward line, with Nikkin and Sunil, supported, for example, by SK Uthappa and Chinglensana Singh from the midfield, we can bring a lot of speed. That’s definitely a strength, but we have other qualities as well.
In 1996, you won the gold medal with the Netherlands at the Atlanta Olympic Games, you took Pakistan to fifth spot in 2004 at the Athens Olympic Games and the Netherlands again to the fourth spot in 2008 at the Beijing Olympic Games. What’s the difference between, the World Cup and the Champions Trophy on the one hand and the Olympic Games on the other?
The impact from the Olympic Games is external, because the Olympic Games is simply the biggest sporting event in the world. It’s bigger than the World Cup or the Champions Trophy. As a team you have to focus on the matter at hand – our performances during the hockey tournament, which, coincidentally, is taking place during the Olympic Games.
I am not going to allow more pressure than at other tournaments, but to play a top tournament will inevitably bring pressure, because you always carry eight gold medals in your backpack. It simply boils down [to] that. The country has been waiting for 36 years, the last gold medal was in 1980. That’s always at the back of your mind, but you can either consider it a burden – or a great challenge to write history, and you have to approach it this way.
What has your experience been like with the Indian hockey team?
It is great to work with this group, because they are studious, if you like. They invest energy in training and in the matches. Every training camp, they want to become better. That’s the only right attitude to return to the level where you want to be, with a lot of youngsters. The Under 21 team is excellent and so in that sense Indian hockey has a bright future. That may not emerge yet at these Olympic Games. We have to wait and see, but India can win gold medals at big tournaments in the next four years.
As someone who has been involved in hockey for over three decades now, what’s your view on the many different ways in which hockey has changed over the years?
That is precisely the only reason you can maintain this job for such a long time, otherwise it wouldn’t be fun anymore. The new rules, insights and different cultures make it exciting. It is always interesting to see how, time and again, in some corner of the globe, there is a new evolution – be it in attack, be it in defence. That remains interesting.
At the same time, I will always stick to my own philosophy – a fairly attacking set-up, which entails risk. So, it is great to coach India, because they do like to take risks a bit.