Q/ What space is the team in coming out of the Asian Champions Trophy and heading into the Asian Games?
A/ In Chennai (ACT), almost all of our matches went well. Our previous matches were against European teams; it is totally different against Asian sides. The ACT was really helpful ahead of the Asian Games. We learnt a lot there, on how to analyse the opponents and where we can hurt them. The team is full of confidence and we are working on the areas we thought we were lacking in in Chennai.
Q/ Craig Fulton has been coach for a few months. How has the team adjusted to his style of coaching?
A/ It is about how quickly the players can adjust to the new coach on the field. We have faced no difficulty in doing so; it is just that we have added one or two aspects to the structure [of play]. Overall, it has been a positive experience.
He is an experienced coach; he was with the Belgium team [as assistant coach] and he shares his [learnings] from his journey. This is good for the players and we are trying to adopt everything as quickly as we can.
Q/ One of the main tactical shifts under Fulton has been the focus on defence. How successful has this shift been for you?
A/ No matter how many chances you create up front, a silly mistake in the back can cost you a goal. Earlier, the mentality was that only the defence line would defend; now everyone starting from the forwards are involved in the process. All the players are now actively thinking of what their responsibilities are when they do not have the ball.
Q/ As a captain, what is your role? You are the interface between the players and the coach. How is that process flowing?
A/ The bonding is great, touch wood. We don’t have the concept of juniors and seniors in this team. Everyone is free to speak their mind, on and off the field. If a junior is not comfortable speaking directly with the coach, he can come to us. On the field, I play as a free man and my role, without ball, is to communicate well with the team. For instance, the goalkeeper tells me something and I relay it to the forwards. On the field, everyone has been told to just do their best. There will be mistakes, but you should not overthink it. You put it in the past and move forward to your next responsibility.
Q/ You have additional responsibility as captain. You took over the role from Manpreet Singh, who is still in the team. How was that shift, how does a team come together?
A/ For me and the team, we have the mentality that there is no captain. Everyone who is on the field is a leader in himself. There are times when I might not be doing well and someone comes up to me and tells me to keep going. That gets me motivated.
Q/ Fulton said he likes to coach only in the training sessions and not on the sidelines. That ties into what you are saying about responsibility on field.
A/ That is really important. The coach knows that he is only guiding the players and it is the player who has to perform. It is hard for the coach to communicate during a match because of the crowd and the noise.
Q/ Talking of noise, you have to talk about India-Pakistan matches. Do you do anything different for a Pakistan clash or is it just noise from the outside?
A/ No doubt it is an important match. We are excited to play them and of course there is aggression. However, we have to prioritise our responsibilities. We cannot forget our role in the excitement.
Q/ We have recently seen the camaraderie between Neeraj Chopra and Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem. It seems fresh in terms of India-Pakistan sporting history. There is a rivalry and there is also bonding.
A/ On the field there is no friend or brother; off it, you can show them a different side of you.
Q/ You have been with the national team for eight years now. Do you see the gap between India and the European teams narrowing? What more needs to be done?
A/ You have to be mentally strong. Earlier, there was this mentality that the Australians, for instance, are too good. But, as hockey has grown, we have defeated all the top teams, that too with a good margin. That gives us confidence and belief.
Q/ There seemed to be a complex before, where, everything being equal, the team would still be left behind. Now it seems like the team will compete till the last second and also win.
A/ Those who follow hockey had this mentality that India concedes at the last moment. I have heard this many times. We have changed that mindset; not only do we score at the last moment, but we also win.
Q/ The comeback in the Asian Champions Trophy against Malaysia (1-3 to 4-3)…
A/ Even in the Olympics (Tokyo 2020), we were 1-3 down. Going into the dressing room―I am getting goosebumps―it was the juniors who said they had the belief that we could win. It was the same in the ACT. We had talked about being prepared for anything in the final. Whatever the situation, you have to do your job till the final whistle.
Q/ One of the takeaways from the ACT was the fitness of the Indian team.
A/ We spend more than 250 days a year in the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru. We do not regret it because the harder we work, the better it is for the team and for India. As for fitness, we work really hard. We have sessions at 2pm, under the sun. We have different sessions in the gym and for conditioning. We have red (high-intensity) and lighter green sessions on the pitch. The training staff is doing a great job. When the team is fit, there is more confidence.
Q/ How important is mental conditioning? Paddy Upton, who was earlier with the Indian cricket team, is now part of the setup.
A/ A good example of mental conditioning was the ACT final. It is all good when you are doing well. There is no pressure. But when things are not going your way in terms of your individual responsibility, like a penalty corner, you need to know how to handle that situation. We have talked about this in meetings with Paddy. He spoke about how to keep the performance graph going up. Like, for instance, if you are tired in a match, you can keep things simple and not make a mistake. Or that you have to stay calm if you are trailing and not give away another goal because of trying too hard to score. These are things we know, but what is important is that you remember these points when you are in that situation.
Q/ In your post-mortems, do you review your matches? Also, matches of other teams, like Germany or Australia?
A/ Of course. Be it during a tournament or if it is some other tournament [that is going on]. As for our own matches, we review every game and see where we can improve. We review the previous match before going into the next one. We look at whether we continued the positives from the previous game. That helps. We talk about the structure, with ball, without ball, penalty corners, how to beat the first rusher of the goalkeeper, what their pattern of running is. We analyse all these aspects. What are the goalkeeper’s plus points, where is he saving the most, where is he conceding….
Q/ Is this an open forum? Can players speak their mind?
A/ Of course. The coach brings all his data and we analyse it. The coach asks for players’ opinions. For instance, he would ask Sreejesh, senior goalkeeper, on what he thought. Sreejesh would advise us on the flickers in their team and what they can do. These are the small things we talk about in our PC defence team. It has its own responsibility. We have to think about the first rusher, what the variations are going to be and how to block them.
Q/ Even the junior players participate?
A/ Of course.
Q/ It is not only the coach, captain and senior players?
A/ No, no. If it is about PC (penalty corner) attack, then the whole attack team is part of the meeting; same with PC defence.
Q/ During a major tournament, how do you unwind?
A/ We have team dinners and team activities where we play other sports like cricket, either with a bat or with the hockey stick (laughs). I have some videos; I have hit two or three consecutive sixes from the centre line.
Q/ The cricket team needs some big hitters.
A/ No, no (laughs).
Q/ So there are these activities?
A/ Yes. We have team activities, we go out for team dinners. We have a good time. On the field, you can play tennis or, like I said, cricket.
Q/ When you started playing hockey as a young boy, and over the years, you have heard of the days where India won so many Olympic golds. Does that pressure to win haunt you? Or is that a bygone era?
A/ No, there is no pressure as such.
Q/ There is a desire.
A/ Desire, yes. When I started, the dream was to play the Olympics. As a child, a medal was not on my mind. It was about reaching the Olympics. When I went for my first Olympics, in 2016, I was the youngest in the squad. We had a good performance there; we were close to a medal, but we lost in the quarterfinals to Belgium. But when we talk about Tokyo, it was a different era. When we had the team meeting, we sat in a circle and the players were asked about their journeys. And when they spoke from their hearts, we bonded deeply as a team. We will never forget that meeting before the Olympics. We still talk about it. Every player spoke about their journey, their sacrifices, their families, and those things connect with your heart.
So in the Olympics, we lost badly to the Australians. When I talk about team bonding, all the players gathered after the match and said that that match did not define us as a team. That meeting was really helpful. Then we had great performances back to back and we had the same mentality after the semifinal. We will, of course, never forget the bronze medal. We talked about how hard we had worked to reach there and that we had one chance. If we lost, nobody would have given us any attention. Like I said before, there was a belief. We converted the chances we got and we fought till the last whistle. We can never forget that last penalty corner. So, there is no pressure, just a dream that I have to achieve whatever I want in life.
Q/ But then the early exit in the home World Cup would have been disappointing.
A/ Of course. Especially if you talk about my performance ; in terms of penalty corners, it was the first tournament I experienced something like this (Harmanpreet was unusually out of form). But there was no negativity within the team. A lot came from outside, good and bad. But what is important is how positive you keep things for a player within the family. We are a family.
Q/ The players supported each other.
A/ Definitely. We have the mentality that if we win, the team wins; if we lose, the team loses. It’s not about any individual. So that was a good moment for me, as was coming back to form.
Q/ How is it having a former player, Dilip Tirkey, as Hockey India president?
A/ Whenever we meet him, he tells us that we already know what to do and does not put any pressure on us. Because he has been a player himself, he knows what a player goes through. He does point out if he sees some gaps in our game but his involvement is minimal. It is a positive support.
Q/ There is talk of the Hockey India League being revived. Will that help push hockey to a higher level?
A/ It will definitely help. If I have been able to show who I am, it is because of the HIL. I never thought I would be able to play with greats like Jamie Dwyer (Australian World Cup winner). When you play with such players and good teams, you learn a lot and your confidence spikes. It is a great platform, especially for Indian players.
Q/ You have played across the country. Does India have a good talent base in hockey? Are there talented youngsters coming up?
A/ Yes, there are. But there needs to be a platform. And the HIL could be that platform. Apart from that, we can telecast the matches between the various departments. The coaches and the federation staff can go and analyse them. The good ones should be given a chance here. Play with the junior team, for instance. It has started now. In Odisha, there is an under-16 camp going on, which is a great move. Things like this are happening and they should continue.
Q/ How are the coaching standards at the junior level? Former Olympian Viren Rasquinha has said that coaching in hockey is more focused at the top level. It should instead be more focused on the junior level so that players don’t have to relearn when they reach the senior level.
A/ I agree that if your base is strong, you will face fewer problems in future. But if you talk about our junior team, they give us a tough fight.
Q/ Viren was talking about kids as young as eight or 10.
A/ Right coaching for them is more important. Because you develop good or bad habits at that age. And they stay with you. Hockey India has started that. My senior, Rupinder Pal Singh, holds camps of two-three weeks, in Odisha. He also comes here. More ex-players should come in. There is Raghu bhai (Raghunath). The more you attach experienced players with the youngsters, the better it is for them, and hockey. Your base will be strong. When they share their knowledge about the senior level, that is a starting point for the youngsters. They will have fewer problems going ahead.
Q/ For the youngsters, tell us about what sports has given you. What is your philosophy?
A/ Sports has given me everything.
Q/ But there is a lot of hard work, too. You start as a kid and now you are spending 250 days on the SAI campus.
A/ Hockey players, especially, come from a middle-class background and we have not seen enough of the world. The struggle begins when you are a kid; you stay away from home. You are staying in an academy and you don’t know anything. When a hockey player starts, he does it for a job. When you get older and gain more knowledge, you start setting targets. It was the same for me. My starting journey was really tough. Staying away from home. I started in a private academy. When I joined the government academy, there were a lot of senior players who were representing the national team. So I got a push from there that, yes, I can also do this. When we were young, the seniors would come to the ground. To practise with them. To see them, to talk to them, to shake their hand, all that is exciting and pushes you to do more. Getting a ground was a big thing. I am talking about the Surjit Academy (Jalandhar, Punjab). Our whole junior batch was from the same academy, and that same batch is continuing in the senior team. So, yeah, hockey has given me a lot; it has shown me the world.
Q/ What are your short-term goals? A win in the Asian Games means direct qualification for the Olympics.
A/ It is a good opportunity and the team is also going well. Our target is to get a direct ticket to Paris.