As world No 5 India gears up to take on Russia men’s team, ranked 22nd, in a two-legged FIH Olympic qualifier tie in Bhubaneshwar on Friday and Saturday, coach Graham Reid’s message to his wards is straightforward: treat every team with respect.
Complacency has no place in professional sport and Australian Reid has stressed this message to his wards regularly since taking over as the Indian men’s hockey team’s head coach.
Against Russia, India will start as clear favourites to win both the matches at the Kalinga Stadium and seal their place in next year’s Tokyo Olympics but Reid is very well aware that one bad day in office can ruin his team’s Olympic dream.
“If you look at last week’s games in Olympic qualifiers, it’s the first thing you would see (how complacency can cost a team),” Reid said on the eve of the first game. “My message has been pretty much the same ever since I joined the team. Always treat everyone with respect, like you are playing the best in the world. We have prepared as well as we could have and are ready.”
India captain Manpreet Singh agreed with his coach and said senior pros like him are doing their best to make the juniors aware about the ill effects of complacency.
“Ever since we have come here, we have always said never underestimate the opponent,” Manpreet said. “Our mindset should only be about winning. All seniors like Rupinder (Pal Singh) or (PR) Sreejesh take all the players along. They tell the youngerster that never think it’s going to be easy.”
“That’s what we have been discussing since the last three weeks. Like coach said, the qualifiers last weekend were very close. So we don’t have to underestimate Russia or look at their rankings,” the captain added.
Asked about India’s shoot-out preparation in the case of scores and points being level after the two matches, the coach said: “We have talked about it, we always practice shoot-outs. Five out of six training sessions finish with shootouts. It’s an inevitable part of hockey. The players are always prepared and we have chosen players for that.”
India captain Manpreet feels the blend of experience and youth will stand the team in good stead in the next two days.
“SV Sunil, Lalit (Upadhyay), Rupinder, Sreejesh, (Birender) Lakra, their experience is going to make a difference,” he said.
“Sunil takes the strikers along, similarly Rupinder in defence. Our youngsters like Vivek (Sagar Prasad), Nilakanta (Sharma) and Hardik (Singh) are also good, the team is a good mixture of seniors and juniors.
“Our preparation is good because this is an extremely important tournament. We are doing our best, working on fitness. We have learnt a lot from the Belgium tour.”
Questioned about the team selection, especially the snub to a old workhorse like Kothajit Singh from the team, Manpreet said picking up a player is the prerogative of selectors and coaching staffs.
“The 18 selected are equal. The previous Japan tour or Belgium tour, everybody worked hard. It’s difficult for the coach to select 18, because everybody is almost at the same level in the core group. Those in the team deserve to be there,” he said.
“The coaches look at all 22 players equally. All are similar. It’s very difficult to select a team, because all players are giving their 100 per cent. So coaches give a lot of thought before picking up a team,” the skipper added.
Russia head coach Vladimir Konkin promised to give the eight-time Olympic champions a tough fight in the two-match contest irrespective of their position in world rankings.
“India is one of the strongest international teams in the world. They are eight-time Olympic champions, so right now we are far behind them. But we hope for better results,” he said. “In FIH rankings we are in 22nd place right now but in our heart we know we are quite higher. So for us it is a great opportunity to prove ourselves against a tough team like India.”
“I promise you we came here to fight and it would be a good battle,” Konkin added.