Viren Rasquinha is one of the most popular faces in Indian hockey. A former captain, he was bestowed with the Arjuna Award in 2005 and played 180 times in the Indian jersey in a six-year career. He was a gifted player who operated in the midfield and was known for his tackling, stamina and calm nature. He retired, to everyone's surprise, at the age of 28 when he was still at his peak, to pursue management studies.
If there is one thing Rasquinha has not achieved in his career, it is winning an Olympic medal. However, he does not regret it even one bit, once saying in an interview that retirement was the "best decision" he ever took. Even if he has never won a medal, he wants to help other Indian athletes win one, which is why he is currently the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to "support Indian athletes in winning Olympic gold medals".
Rasquinha caught up with Scroll.in to talk about the Indian men's hockey team's prospects in the upcoming Rio Olympics.
There are a lot of expectations from the Indian team for this Olympics, especially after the silver medal in the 2016 Champions Trophy. Do you think there is a realistic chance of winning a medal at Rio?
I don’t think there is a realistic chance of winning a medal. For me, being realistic, the first goal should be to get into the quarter-finals and then take it one match at a time from there. I think it is very stupid to talk about a medal. The Olympics is a very long tournament. On the basis of one match we played well against Australia [in the final of the Champions Trophy] – it was an outstanding performance; there is no doubt it was the best performance in 10 years against Australia; the best performance in 10 years in a tournament in terms of consistency – but that doesn’t make them realistic medal contenders.
There is always hype surrounding the Indian team before the Olympics, when everyone expects a medal. But otherwise, it seems like no one cares about what Indian hockey is up to. Do you think that’s unfair – to have such high expectations only during major tournaments?
Yes, absolutely, that’s what I am saying. I am being pragmatic and realistic and trying temper expectations. If people are going to set crazy expectations for a team that did not qualify for Beijing 2008 and came last in London 2012, for me that is unrealistic. For me, we need to take the pressure off the team and not dump our expectations on them.
Will the new Olympic tournament format, where the top four teams from two pools will qualify for the quarter-finals, benefit India?
I think it’s a big advantage for us to have quarter-finals in the Olympics for the first time. All these years, it was only the top two [teams] from each pool going to the semis, which honestly in the last three decades has been very tough for India. We almost made it in Sydney 2000, but other than that we have not really come close. But top four [qualifying from each pool] is a big advantage for India. That should be the first target. We have shown in the World Hockey League that in a one-off match, anything can happen.
Out of the five other teams in India’s pool, three are ranked below them – Argentina, Canada and Ireland. Does India have a chance to top the pool?
Whether we top it or come fourth, you’re still in the quarter-finals. I think the main thing for me is to avoid Australia. Obviously playing well in the group stage will give us confidence for the knockouts. But to be honest, the media is looking at a medal, the public is looking at a medal, [but] I am not looking at anything beyond the first match against Ireland. From my own experience, you take things one step at a time. You don’t look further.
Coming to the squad, do you see any obvious weaknesses? Or are these the best 16 players available?
I think it is the best possible squad on the basis of current form and fitness. I think it is a very good team. Maybe Mandeep [Singh] was a bit unlucky to miss out – it would have been a very close call between Mandeep and Ramandeep [Singh], but overall I think it is the best possible team and full marks to [head coach Roelant] Oltmans. I have a lot of faith in Oltmans. When I played for India in the Athens Olympics, he was the coach of the Pakistan team at the time and he had got them playing some tremendous hockey. He’s an Olympic gold medal-winning coach, he has won the World Cup as a coach, so he’s one of the most experienced and sharpest brains in world hockey. I have no doubt in my mind that he is the best person to leading the Indian team. As a coach, strategy wise, to get the best out of the team, understanding the Indian culture, understanding the players, I think there is no one better than him.
What exactly has he done differently? He has been praised for focusing on the team and not individual players…
Absolutely. One of the biggest things, for someone like me who analyses hockey closely, is the use of rolling substitution. He has made very intelligent use of the rolling sub, which means all 16 members of the squad have to be ready to play at all times. Everyone is getting equal opportunities. It is not like the earlier times when 11 or 12 players would play the entire tournament and the guys sitting on the bench would do just that throughout.
He’s got the full squad confident, everyone’s getting playing time, everyone is feeling equally important, there is no first XI as such and everyone has an equal role to play. Because of the intelligent use of rolling substitution, India has been able to maintain a high tempo throughout 60 minutes in every match. In the Olympics, you’re going to play seven matches in 11 days, so you need top fitness and good use of the rolling substitution.
Team spirit, camaraderie, confidence in all the players, playing at a high tempo – he’s got all these things into the team. I think strategy wise he has been very good, especially against teams like Australia. Overall, against a lot of teams – Belgium, Germany, England – we’ve played very well. These are opponents who in the past we have struggled against.
Coming back to the squad, the defence and midfield look pretty strong. Do you think the forward line is the weak link? You mentioned Mandeep Singh missing out.
I don’t think it’s a weak link. If you look at SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh, [they are] two of the best forwards. Ramandeep Singh on his day can really score a lot of goals – I think he just needs consistency. I don’t consider it is a weak link as such, but in tournaments such as the Olympics, you won’t get too many chances in every match and you need to make those count. You have to be very sharp and very aggressive in the dee. In big matches such as Holland, you’re going to get only three or four chances in the match and you have to make them count.
Against Ireland, our first match, they play very aggressive hockey and lot of body play. They are not going to give the Indian team any space at all. In David Harte they have the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment, so you have to be very sharp in the finishing. There is a lot of responsibility on the forwards.
Birendra Lakra was also unfortunate to miss out because of his injury. Do you think India will miss him a lot?
See, there is no doubt that any team would miss a player of the caliber of Birendra Lakra. He is one of the few world-class players in the team and it’s a big loss for India to not have him in the squad. But, again, full marks to Oltmans that he’s got the full squad playing as a team and there is no over-dependence on a Sardar Singh or a Birendra Lakra. We played superbly in the Champions Trophy without Sardar, Birendra and Rupinder Pal Singh. It didn’t seem like we missed them. I think the way Oltmans has got the team playing, they won’t miss Lakra too much, but again you don’t replace world-class players overnight.
There is also just one goalkeeper, PR Sreejesh, in the entire squad. Is that a concern?
Every team in the Olympics today goes with just one goalkeeper, so it’s not a new thing. In fact, India was one of the last teams to adopt this policy. Even in the London Olympics, we were one of just two or three teams who went with two keepers. But today almost every team in world hockey is going in with only one keeper.
Coming to the captaincy. There was a change in captaincy from Sardar Singh to PR Sreejesh right before the Olympics and it was played up by the media. Do you think it will impact the team or not make much of a difference?
I think that it’s a good decision, as it will help take away some of the burden from Sardar. I’ve seen him over a period of time and I think he has been feeling the burden of captaincy, of responsibility as the senior player in the team. We need Sardar to be in full flow as a player and not worry too much about the performance of others.
Sreejesh is a great character. I think he is someone who can really bring the team together. He himself is a very confident individual and is playing well, so I think he ticks all the boxes. I have no doubt Sreejesh will make a great captain. He is well-liked and respected by everyone.
Finally, is this squad is more fit than the one in London 2012?
I think every Indian team over the last five Olympics has been extremely fit. But the difference is about the right use of rolling substitution and having the right players in the team. So if you use your rolling sub intelligently, you can start and end every match at a high tempo. Even the best players in the world are being rotated every three or four minutes today, so it’s not [just] about fitness. Everyone is super fit today. It’s about using the rolling sub intelligently and having faith in the squad. I think that’s where Oltmans has made a big difference.
Viren Rasquinha is one of the expert panelists on Star Sports during the Olympics 2016.