It was just over a year ago, on March 3, 2023, that Craig Fulton was appointed as the head coach of the Indian men’s hockey team. Fulton took over following a disappointing FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup at home where India failed to reach the quarter-finals.

Fulton’s goals when taking over were clear: qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics and lead the team to another podium finish.

The former Ireland coach delivered on one front by helping the team qualify for the Olympics, by guiding them to a gold medal at the Hangzhou Asian Games.

He has overseen a change in the way India play, focusing on building a strong defence and hitting teams on the counter. The team has slowly imbibed the South African’s philosophy and are a much more difficult side to break down.

India had a satisfactory outing at the Odisha leg of the 2023-24 FIH Men’s Pro League where they went toe-to-toe with the likes of Australia and the Netherlands. After a well-deserved break, Fulton and his side prepare for a five-match tour of Australia in April to fine tune their preparations for the Paris Olympics.

In an interview with Scroll, Fulton spoke about his year in charge, the improvement he has seen in the team and the Paris Olympics.

Edited excerpts:

It’s been almost a year since you've taken over as coach. How do you see the progress that the team has made during this year?

Good. Yeah, the team is in a good place at the moment. I think we progressed nicely from the Pro League last year and then into the Asian Games. There wasn’t a lot of time, only three months to get the team to fire and after qualification I think it’s become clearer that we can play. Now it’s just about putting the right program in place, having the right players and creating the right environment for us to be successful.

In your first press-conference after taking over, you said you want to build the team from the defence. Are you happy with how things are or do you think there’s still some areas that you want to address?

I think the philosophy is starting to get clearer now. The guys are buying into it and they do know that when they are more compact and they are connected and collectively defending together, they give themselves good opportunities to attack. That doesn’t mean we’re not good on the ball build-up. There are areas that we can definitely improve, but we’re playing at a good level.

We want to improve the details of a few areas in our game, like converting more circle entries into goal shots and hopefully the goal shots turn into outcomes. That will always be the case. And then now and again we’re conceding some really silly goals that we can avoid and that’s been clear from the group that we want to try and improve that.

The Pro League matches against the Netherlands and Australia were close ones. Could you break down those four matches?

We were competitive in all those games. The games were tight. I think there’s a really strange event in the 6-4 match against Australia. To go 2-0 down in the first 90 seconds or so and then within the next 10-12 minutes be 4-2 up. That’s not normal. It shows that whatever Australia has, we also can play and deliver our own threats as well.

But having said that, the second-half didn’t go according to plan. When it got to four-all and then 5-4, it was a little too late from our side. But we made a few tactical errors there that we’ve learned from. It was a really good experiment.

I think the games against Holland were close and could have gone either way. The second game against Australia in Rourkela was a very good performance from us. I think we were really well organized and to anyone who doesn’t know much about hockey, that was a good game. That was a close game.

There were chances both ways. Both teams attacked well, defended well. We made one mistake, they punished us and then we lost a shootout. Again, knowing what we know, I think we could have held out and probably still got the win, but that’s something that we’ll have to live with and keep improving as we go.

Could you talk about the importance of aerial balls and how have the likes of Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh and Harmanpreet Singh been able to nail those passes?

It’s a very effective tactic. I think a lot of the top teams in the world are using it and especially against zonal defence when teams aren’t man marking, then there’s space. It’s about trying to create your own space and having the effectiveness of a decent aerial ball into that space.

Now a lot of teams are playing man-to-man, so they’re trying to take away the aerial receive because they’ll be within the five meters. So it’s not easy to throw the aerial and get it to where you want it to go. There’s a lot of training that goes into that, but the guys are talented and they’ve been doing it for a long time, so they get a lot of confidence from the aerial game.

India’s forwards, especially the experienced ones, haven’t scored a lot of field goals. Is that an area of concern for you?

Teams are defending a lot deeper, so there’s a lot less space. There’s almost like four attackers to seven defenders on average. It’s not that easy to get goal shots and then still get it through all those defenders and get it towards the goal unobstructed. So it is becoming harder. That's why sometimes it’s easier to win penalty corners, because then you get rid of the other three defenders and there's only four and the goalkeeper.

In counter attack situations, you’ll obviously have more space and we’re looking to improve that. We just need a different way of scoring goals, not just the normal way of big shots from the top of the D with a big strike because it seldom happens. It’s all in the nine-yard or along the baseline. So yes, that’s a work in progress.

Simranjeet Singh and Karthi Selvam are absent from the 28-member core group you have named. What do they need to do to get back in the squad?

Both players are exceptionally talented. It’s just one, from a technical point of view, has to make some improvements and the other from just a physical point of view. The game is relentless, it’s a lot of hard running.

If you’re playing Holland, if you’re playing Australia and you’re playing teams back-to-back, it’s not easy. There’s not a lot of recovery time. So it’s always about trying to get a balance between the technical and the physical and then the mental to cover both of those under difficult circumstances.

So we’ve got a lot of technically talented players, but we’re also building on the physical side of it.

The hardest thing is if you have speed and power, but you don't have the technical [aspects], then you do a lot of running around, a lot of hard work, but you don’t get a lot of outcomes with the ball.

Then if you have a lot of technical [players] but you don’t have the physical [players], then how do you last in games that are really relentless?

Finding the balance is the challenge that those players have.

How close are you to naming your squad for Paris? You have two great goalkeepers in PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak but you can only take one. Do you know who will start in goal for you at the Olympics?

The squad is done, the 27-man squad is done and then from that the 19 will be chosen and the final 16-man squad will be selected.

[Regarding goalkeepers] It’s very difficult. I think we’ve played each of them a lot to give them both a lot of time in the last 7-8 months and that’s what we'll continue to do. I’m in no frame of mind to make the decisions yet, we are still in the squad phase.

We’ll have a good look after going to Australia and then have a small break and then we have a three-week training block in Bangalore and then we’ll select a team.