In the last two Commonwealth Games, the Indian men’s hockey team finished second, losing both finals to Australia. Next month, in Gold Coast, Australia, India will be hoping to turn the tables on the top-ranked team in the world, and helping them in their mission is former Australia drag-flick specialist Chris Ciriello.
The Australian, who had scored in both finals against India, including a hat-trick in the 2014 final in Glasgow, was recently roped in by Hockey India to be the analytical coach of the men’s team.
“Chris has scored a hat-trick thrice in the World Cup and in the Commonwealth Games,” said India head coach Sjoerd Marijne. “So, he knows how to deal with pressure. Only by saying that, players will have confidence in them. On the New Zealand tour, we scored more penalty corners with his corrections.”
Ciriello’s mother was born in Kolkata and was an Anglo-Indian. His grandfather, who also played hockey, used to head the customs department in Calcutta. Eventually they moved to Melbourne where his grandfather started coaching kids. “He coached my father and that is how my parents met,” said Ciriello.
The half-Italian, half-Anglo-Indian is eager to strengthen the Indian team in a crucial year, where they will compete in the Commonwealth Games in April, the Asian Games in August and the Hockey World Cup in November.
“My focus is to make the culture better,” said Ciriello. “I don’t care if you are 18 and just played five games or if you are Manpreet who has played over 150 games. The thing is as soon as you are on the field, you have to have that winning mentality. You must have good discipline.”
The 32-year-old retired as a player last year and has been coaching since 18 at his academy back home. “I have coached first division men and women, second division players in Perth,” he said. “I’ve had my coaching academy for over eight years. I was working with the Under-21 Australian team as well before I came here. It will be a good experience to work with a good group and also making them more competitive and wanting to win.”
While this will be his first stint with a senior national squad, Ciriello has started having a positive effect on the team already. “It’s not only about the drag flickers,” said India captain Manpreet Singh. “On the field, he’s always motivating other players. On the ground, he had a winning mentality. He’s achieved everything. So, it’s good for us that we can learn a lot from him. I am learning a lot of things from him. My mentality is getting changed now.”
Ciriello knows that India’s defence needs strengthening but penalty-corner conversion, for a while now, has been their Achilles’s heel. At the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, India managed to convert only six PCs out of 26. The road ahead for Ciriello is tough but he is up for the task.
“It is a matter of getting better,” he said. “We need to improve pushing, we need to improve tracking and we need to improve accuracy. Every country in the world wants to score 100% penalty corners. Every country wants to save a penalty corner. So we need to work on the details together and work on some variations, which India has lacked. India have got good flickers but you need to have patience of direct flicking and variations.”
Ciriello said that the job doesn’t start and end at flicking and that is something that the Indians have to understand. Variations, he said, alone cannot ensure that a PC will be converted all the time. “There are 100 different types of variations that one can do,” said Ciriello, who played for Punjab Warriors in the Hockey India League.
“But it is not only up to the flickers. It is something that everyone in India must understand. If the pushing is not quick enough and the trapping is not good enough, then you have only 33% of chances of converting. If the pushing is not straight or clean it is very hard, if the trapping is not hard, then it is very hard,” he added.
First test, the CWG
Ciriello joined India during their tour of New Zealand and his effect was immediate as the team smashed 11 goals in the second part of the four-game tour. He wants to make them more competitive and play as a unit.
“What we do is divide the boys in two teams and work on team building exercises,” he said. “We monitor the game and act like strict umpires. We point out things like arguing and poor tackling. I want them to improve because we have to be better than the other issues we face such as umpiring or problems with each other.”
At the CWG, Ciriello is going to go all out and ensure India win gold. “I am here to do my job. I am here to win. In the last two Commonwealth Games, I won my gold medals against India. This time I would like to change that. I like to win. I don’t like losing and I want to win again,” he said.