Clutching onto their beer mugs on a good Australian evening, former Australian stars Mark Hager, Baeden Choppy, Jason Stacy, and Michael Nobbs were discussing Indian hockey. “What makes a striker?” Choppy – the 1996 Olympics bronze medallist – was asked. “Look, if you are not prepared to be ruthless in the circle, you are not going to be a successful striker,” Choppy shot back. “The Indians are great players but not ruthless enough.”

It was a captivating discussion that former India coach Nobbs narrated, but the word ‘coach’ – which kicked up a storm lately in India – was never the protagonist in the entire dialogue. The ‘player’ was always the central figure, and the most responsible.

Sadly, it’s something that got lost in the hubbub surrounding the all-so-familiar coaching saga Indian hockey has just witnessed.

After every debacle, Hockey India and even its predecessor – Indian Hockey Federation – have been happy to show the door to the coach and the same method was followed after the recently concluded Commonwealth Games, where India failed to win a medal.

Harendra Singh replaced Sjoerd Marijne to became India’s 34th men’s national coach in the last 38 years apparently because the players expressed their reservations over the Dutchman’s coaching methods during their meeting with International Hockey Federation president Narinder Batra.

And the coaches swap saga enacted by Hockey India in the aftermath hardly looked at the performance of the most important architects of Indian hockey – the players.

Ever since he took over the job, Marijne had spoken about his coaching philosophy of players taking more responsibility on the field and it is learnt that players had a problem with this approach.

As a player, it’s perfectly fine to provide feedback on coaches. While that input is important, what’s equally important is the players being held responsible for their actions, their inefficiency, and frailties. The buck may stop with the coach in most cases but that doesn’t make the players any less accountable. Execution doesn’t rest with a coach, only planning does, and there can be flaws at both levels. Correcting just one won’t do the trick.

Where India stood at CWG

“In most of the games at CWG, they entered the circle more than 30 times and still not enough goals. That’s just crazy stuff,” said Nobbs.

“It’s [missing goals] partially a skill issue and partially attitude,” said Nobbs. “They are not desperate enough to put the ball into the net. If you give Germany that many chances, they will pump in 10 goals. There is nothing wrong with defence or structure of the team, but there is no ruthlessness about their effort.”

Akashdeep Singh, a striker with over 150 international caps, typified the lack of luster in India’s finishing inside the circle at Gold Coast. Apart from SV Sunil, India’s forward-line – which also included Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh and Lalit Upadhyay – appeared on crutches. Little then could be expected of Dilpreet Singh, the teenager up front playing only his second tournament, when his seniors went flat.

The penalty-corner conversion also remains an issue. Since Asia Cup last October, the conversion rate is at just 27% (41/153). At CWG, the PC numbers read 11/39. Harmanpreet Singh, despite being erratic, is the best hope on drag-flicks while Rupinder Pal Singh’s fitness has become a major worry and Varun and Amit Rohidas are seldom used.

And merely swapping coach cannot tide over problem like lack of creativity and cohesion in the team and the silly individual errors that cost the team through their Commonwealth Games campaign.

Former India striker Jagbir Singh did not mince words in his analysis of the team’s performance at Gold Coast. “CWG showed us three teams instead of one,” Jagbir, the government-appointed Observer for the sport, said. “There were some stupid individual efforts that cost us goals and broke the team spirit. When there is individual and self-play, then what message does it send across to other players?”

An India job, said the former center-forward, comes wrapped in “pressure of expectations” and those not fit to handle it are not fit for the job.

“A player representing the country will always have the pressure of expectations, even the coach for that matter. The player or coach who cannot take this pressure should not even touch a hockey stick. The Indian jersey can’t be available easily.”

Players need to step up

Nobbs, meanwhile, suggested that Harendra should put non-performers on notice. However, the Australian sounded a bit too straight by Indian standards where reputations and rapports can tide over performance graphs.

“If I were Harendra, I would tell the players, ‘It’s really simple. Strikers, your job is to put the ball into the net. If you can’t, you are gone. These are the stats. You are all on notice. If you don’t score, you will be replaced,” the former India coach said.

Dhanraj Pillay and Gagan Ajit Singh were perhaps the last two ruthless strikers India produced, with Shivendra Singh coming close to matching them but for the brittle fitness he had.

Of the current lot, Mandeep Singh burst onto the scene with Gagan-like opportunism that has faded away in the recent past. Gurjant Singh is shaping up well as a poacher who guarantees you a hit at the post if he’s anywhere near the ball in the striking circle. He teamed up well with Sunil on occasions at CWG but not much support other than that from the likes of Akashdeep and Lalit.

All these problems go beyond the realm of change-the-coach-to-get-results formula, Hockey India has devised over the past decade.

In the coaches merry-go-round, its Harendra’s turn to sit in the saddle and almost everyone is unanimous in accepting that he is the best man for the job. But unless the players start taking more responsibility and pride in their own performance, even he won’t be able to deliver on the promise.