A tangible difference between the Indian side that failed to win a medal in the Commonwealth Games in April the one that won a silver medal, two months later, in the Champions Trophy was the defence.
Coach Harendra Singh’s version of Total Hockey – “when the team has the ball, everyone has to attack; when the team doesn’t have it, everyone has to defend” – has worked well, especially whilst thwarting the threats from the opposition. At Breda, India, along with Netherlands, conceded the least number of goals (7) in the tournament, remaining impermeable on most occasions even against teams that are ranked higher.
Whenever the ball entered the Indian circle, their strikers rushed to the rescue, lending more strength to the defence. This strategy helped them reach the final of the Champions Trophy for the second successive time, wherein they lost 1-3 in penalty shootouts to Australia after four intensely thrilling quarters in which both teams scored a goal each.
Almost a fortnight after that heartbreak in Breda, Harendra’s gearing up his boys for the next important tournament – Asian Games. He spoke to Scroll.in about the strategy he employed at Breda, the changes he’s made to the team, Sardar’s role and more.
Can we go back to the penalty shootout in the Champions Trophy final against Australia? What was the team’s mindset then?
We did not think about going to penalty shootout. We should have finished the game off within the 60 minutes. Unfortunately, the match got to the shootout. And, I have always said that when it gets there, it’s anyone’s game. You see that happening in the Fifa World Cup as well.
But were there nerves?
No. I think all the players were focussed. Sometimes, you just have to credit the opposition keeper and move on. Tyler Lovell saved our first two attempts beautifully and that added pressure on the other strikers.
You’d said when you took charge as the men’s team coach that India not winning a medal in the Commonwealth Games is more of a ‘mental’ reason than something to do with technique. So, what change did you bring about during the Champions Trophy?
I believe India is on par in terms of fitness, skill and tactical awareness compared to other top teams. Only thing we wanted to change was the mentality. And winning is a habit. When everything else is equal, the difference between the winner and loser is how mentally strong they are on the pitch. That I think the players [have] understood.
What exactly did you tell them for them to make that mental switch?
That’s an everyday process. During meetings, we work individually and as a team. And we analyse the player. So, if he is crumbling under pressure, what are the reasons? You can’t hide that pressure and continue to play. Because hockey is such a fast-paced game and one single error can cost you.
One of the team’s key strengths in the Champions Trophy was the defence. What changes did you make?
I did not change the defensive structure. I changed the shape of the team. I thought about how many players do we want in the opponents’ circle while attacking. How many do we want while defending. Because in hockey, always it’s one versus one. So, you can’t be outnumbered by the opposition. And, if there’s a one versus one scenario, I am confident that Indians are superior skill-wise to get the ball.
There was a change in mentality as well. For instance, if I am a striker and I see the ball with the opposition in my circle, then, I am not a striker anymore, I become one of the defenders. This is what we changed. Every player took on one from the opposition and we had set a time-frame to retrieve the ball. So, everyone knew within this time-frame, we had to regain the ball.
Least goals conceded in Champions Trophy
This strategy sounds like it would test the players’ fitness because the players, especially those in the forward line, have to constantly rush from one end to the other.
Yes. Robin [Arkell, the scientific advisor for the men’s team] is doing a marvellous job in keeping the players fit. If you aren’t fit, then you are hesitant to take risks. Because once you lose the ball, you have to run so much but you aren’t fit to do that, so you’ll start playing safe. And, right now, hockey isn’t about playing safe. Every team is taking risks, which is why we emphasise on fitness. Once you are fully fit, then you wouldn’t mind losing and regaining the ball. This kind of a game suits Indian hockey.
Apart from the final and the first two games in the Champions Trophy, one area that looked a little vulnerable was the midfield…
I don’t think so. They have created openings for the strikers. I am very pleased with the midfielders. They have executed what they set out to do.
How happy were you with Sardar Singh’s performance? What kind of role will he be playing in the future?
There is no role. When we have the ball, everyone has to attack. When we don’t have it, everyone has to defend. We have to play as a team, so they know they don’t have specialised roles. We have to play as an attacking team or defending team. Sardar is contributing to the team with his game and his experience. This isn’t about Sardar; it’s about all the players. I don’t treat him [as] special, every player in this team is equal.
Penalty-corner conversion has been an area of concern. In the final, India tried variations than the conventional trap-and-flick. How will the team approach penalty corners in the future?
I think it will be a combination of variations and drag-flicks. We have great flickers like Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas. I agree that there’s a concern there, but all the teams were struggling with penalty corners in the Champions Trophy. This was because of the pitch – it was too dry sometimes. And if the pitch isn’t conducive, the conversion rates will be low.
Apart from Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh, is India trying to groom more drag-flick specialists?
When you look at the entire squad, there are six-seven drag-flickers. I think India has never had so many drag-flickers. Rupinder Pal, Harman, Varun, Amit, Gurjinder, Dipsan, Nilam… so there are a lot of drag-flickers.
Can you talk about the performance of the youngsters in the Champions Trophy?
I don’t differentiate between youngsters and the rest. For me, it’s an 18-member team. It’s not an individual. The media and the spectators have to learn this from the Fifa World Cup. The teams with one or two big stars have gone out, so the team is always more important.