It’s nothing short of a ‘new beginning’ for the Indian men’s hockey team that hit the training drills in New Delhi for the upcoming Sultan Azlan Shah Cup under newly-installed coach Paul van Ass. To put things in perspective, the 54-year-old Dutchman already has a ‘process’ set in place by his predecessor Terry Walsh – the Aussie having delivered arguably the best-ever performance by any foreign coach during his one-year stint.
The Terry Walsh effect
The likes of Gerhard Rach, Ric Charlesworth, Jose Brasa and Michael Nobbs all have an ‘India’ connection in their CV, but their exploits pale in comparison to Terry Walsh, who orchestrated some of the biggest wins that the Indian team have pulled off in many years.
The Indian team has had rare success with wins against top teams like Australia, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium all in a single year! What’s more, India defeated world champions Australia four times in 2014, including an impressive Test series win in Australia.
World Cup 2014 – A Mixed Performance
At the 2014 World Cup in The Hague, India may have finished ninth, but with little bit of luck they could well have managed a top-six finish. Late goals hurt India big time at the World Cup – if John-John Dohmen’s final minute goal ensured Belgium’s 3-2 win over India, Simon Mantell did the same in England’s 2-1 win over India. India did recover later to defeat higher ranked South Korea to take the ninth spot by a comprehensive 3-0 margin. There were enough indications that the Indian team was making rapid progress under Terry Walsh, although the final position (9th spot) may have reflected something else.
Improvement during the 2014 Commonwealth Games
India also bagged a silver medal in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, stunning higher ranked New Zealand in the semifinals 3-2 after trailing 0-2 at one stage.
The resurgence was brought to its pinnacle with an Asian Games Gold in Korea , with India beating traditional rivals Pakistan in a close final.
Success At the 2014 Champions Trophy but Indian Hockey Coach Exits
Before the Indian Hockey team could declare the year as a success, there was the sad exit of Terry Walsh, just before the Champions trophy. India’s performance did not take an immediate hit as there was reasonable success at the Champions Trophy, with a fourth place finish.
Challenges for Paul Van Ass
There is much to suggest that the Indian national team more or less wears a ‘settled look’ if we are to look at the bigger picture of 2016 Rio Olympics. Paul van Ass has great credentials as the Dutch men’s hockey team coach having served them from 2010 till mid-2014, and being instrumental in helping them bag silver medals at the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 World Cup.
Of course, by their own high standards, Netherlands’ 1-6 defeat at the hands of Australia in the 2014 World Cup final was perhaps seen as a ‘disaster’ – a game that happened to be Paul van Ass’s last game in the hot seat for the Dutch side as after the finals he was replaced by Argentine Max Caldas – another coach of repute.
From the looks of it, it does appear that van Ass is unlikely to make sweeping changes in the way the national team have been playing over the last few years. At most, we can the expect the Duchman to ‘fine-tune’ the process that is in place over the last few months.
Style of hockey
The biggest curiosity is whether India will stick to the ‘Australian’ style of hockey or resort to the European style of hockey now that the team have a Dutch coach. If we delve deeper, one can sense that the team will look to employ a ‘marriage’ of both Australian and European styles with even a bit of Asian style (bout of short passing and dribbling) as well.
Attacking style suits Indian hockey, and is more in line with the way European teams attack – fast slap shots drilled inside the ‘D’ from either the flanks or down the midfield looking for ‘deflection goals’, something we have now come to see in this Indian teams. Deflection goals are increasingly finding comfort with the Indians as are reverse hit goals, both areas where the Indians were not known to excel earlier not to speak of fitness, where our team is as good as the other top teams.
It’s more in tactical play that India have to work hard and this is where Paul Van Ass will do well to map out a strategy to further shore up the team. Taking indirect penalty corners or defending penalty corners is key and this is an area that the new coach will have to focus on besides working on preventing goals in the last five minutes of play, something that has haunted India over the last twelve months or so. It’s time that India get the ‘last minute goal monkey’ off their backs.
Coming up – Sultan Azlan Shah Cup
The upcoming Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April is Paul van Ass’s first real test and with teams like defending champions Australia, New Zealand and Korea. On the positive side, a title win in Ipoh will greatly vindicate his appointment as the win would have come in a tournament where India have three higher ranked teams to counter.
Indian hockey appears to be in good health despite all the uncertainty over the ‘coach’ problem following Terry Walsh’s exit. This uncertainty was also laid to rest by the continuing presence of Roelant Oltmans, as he was at hand to guide India to a semifinal finish in the 2014 Champions Trophy in Bhubaneshwar. With some luck, India could well have been a winner at the Champions Trophy for the first time ever.
But then sport is not about ‘ifs’ and ‘buts, but about playing it the hard way and cornering glory. Paul Van Ass clearly has a tough job at hand to help India make a ‘meaningful impression’ at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The good news is that Paul Van Ass is blessed with a talented bunch of players and has fellow countryman Roelant Oltmans to support him as he plots to take Indian hockey to greater heights.