August was a good month for sport in India. Neeraj Chopra won India’s first gold at the World Athletics Championships with a throw of 88.17m in Budapest; R. Praggnanandhaa emerged runner-up in the FIDE Chess World Cup in Baku; and the national hockey team won the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai. The last of those was more relief than joy, at least for the fans who had, after the Tokyo Olympics bronze high, seen India crash out before reaching the World Cup quarterfinals at home this January. Tokyo, it seemed, was not a false dawn.
The next challenge is the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China (September 23-October 8). New India coach Craig Fulton, a South African who was assistant coach with the World Cup-winning Belgian team, said the other teams would hunt India, the top ranked Asian team.
Up for grabs in Hangzhou is direct qualification for Paris Olympics next year. The team is currently training at the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru. The players spend more than 250 days a year at the centre, away from family and under a rigorous regimen.
On September 2, just before the searing noontime, THE WEEK met both Fulton and captain Harmanpreet Singh to know what was cooking in the camp. They spoke about a range of topics, including the focus on defence, improved fitness of the players, the importance of mental conditioning, chances at the Asian Games and the main threats, the proposed revival of the Hockey India League and the India-Pakistan rivalry. Edited excerpts from the interviews:
Q/ Where does India stand going into the Asian Games?
A/ It is an exciting time. Before I joined, I wanted our team to be the No 1 team in Asia, and try and back that up and be consistent in that space. So, there is the challenge and what comes with that is obviously all the expectation. That is always going to be there because if you want to move the needle, something has to change.
We are doing well. I think the group is confident. It is fit. We have a nice team ethic. The guys work really hard together and it is a good experienced team, [with] some youth that have joined.
India has made real progression in the last eight years. [From] eighth in Rio to now among the top three in the world. Obviously, the pinnacle of that progression was the (Olympic) bronze, which has been a fantastic foundation that has been laid.
Q/ The pressure of expectations in India is high right now. We've been doing rather well in other disciplines. For hockey, the expectations are high when the Asian Games or the Olympics come along and then there's this thing that why aren't we as good as we used to be. Does that put a burden on the players and the coaching staff?
A/ Well, I think that was then and this is now. You have to be realistic around how things have changed and how the game has moved on from Astroturf to the levels of fitness to the quality of hockey that's been played in Europe and where the powerhouses of our sports [are]. If you look back over the last 20 years, certain teams keep popping up that have had success and India's made real progression in the last eight years. From [finishing] eighth in Rio to now top three in the world. Obviously, the pinnacle of that progression was the (Olympic) bronze, which has been a fantastic foundation that's been laid.
Q/ You've taken over from Graham Reid. What legacy has he left behind?
A/ He's done an amazing job. He put the team on the map, with his staff, from a physical point of view. They've got nice and fit. And Tokyo was not an easy time before with Covid-19. So, to keep any team functioning and performing through Covid-19, especially with different rules and regulations around the world regarding how people were allowed to train and not train, that was a tough time. So, the teams that did really well in in Tokyo showed their real character around how they prepared for that tournament. So, it's been nice to come in. I like where the the squad is. We've changed a few things, but there's been a great foundation left there for me.
Q/ What convinced you to take up this role?
A/ I had done five years with the Belgian men's team as assistant and I was coaching in the Belgium National League. It was time for me to get back into the head coaching space again. I communicated that with Belgium. It was not possible and that's fine. So, I had an opportunity [with India] and it was an exciting opportunity. I think it was just needing maybe a slightly different flavour and that's where I thought I could make a difference.
Q/ Is there a time frame that has been agreed between you and Hockey India or a target you have set yourself?
A/ Yeah, I think there's more of a long-term plan. It's more a case of we really want to qualify and do well in the tournament. That's the first objective. The first three months was just to try and understand the squad. Put in my philosophy and understand what makes these players tick and then a new vision and a new Indian way of what we're trying to do. Bringing in the staff that I have and then asking Paddy [Upton] to join. It's been good. It's been a good start.
Q/ There is very little between the top seven to ten teams. So, realistically No 3 puts you in contention for No 2 or No 1.
A/ Yeah. And, at the same time, if you get it wrong, No 4 and No 5. So, it is always who you are chasing and who is chasing you. That never ever stops.
Coming into this tournament, being ranked No 1 [in Asia], you have got an ideal goal and a realistic goal. The ideal goal is always to win. The challenge is: what is the realistic goal? How were you performing consistently in the last six months and what are you doing currently? I think on our current form we are in a good place. But, our feet are firmly on the ground. We take nothing for granted.
Q/ Are you thinking of the Olympics?
A/ No, that is too far away. We go one tournament at a time, one game, one training session at a time. I am firmly in the space of what we have done this week, reflecting, and how we are going to improve next week.
Q/ Going into the Asian Games, who do you think are the main threats? Pakistan has been on a slump.
A/ The teams that made the semifinals in the ACT (Malaysia, Japan and South Korea)―I am not saying that Pakistan is out of it―have done something right in the preparation and in the pool.
Q/ How is mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton helping the team?
A/ He has just got a lot of experience on the continent, with Indian cricket. So, the way of communicating with the Indian people, in their own culture, has helped me immensely. He has done workshops and it is important to our team. We are getting a new identity and a new way of doing things, and it is positive.
Q/ What are you prioritising - mental conditioning, skill sets, physical conditioning, stamina, speed?
A/ I think an integrated whole is really important. But our sport is so demanding physically. Alan Tan has come in as the S&C (strength and conditioning) coach. He's brought in fresh ideas. He's got the team motivated they're having fun at training. They they're working hard and your level of skills derive from your level of fitness. So if you're not that fit to finish games, you almost peter out at the end, at the crucial moments. I think we are in a good place physically.
But the strange thing was we'd had a tournament before we played this tournament [in Spain]. So it was really challenging for the boys and then we traveled to Spain and back and then played within two days. We took it as a challenge. And that's I think where the first two games were difficult for us, just to try and get back into it. I mean no disrespect to Japan. We played a good game, but we couldn't find the back of the net. We weren't 100 per cent. Then when we played them again, it showed that we were back in our rhythm. So that was great. But fitness is one of the most important things and then the ability to stay calm under pressure. That's where the mental skills come in. How to turn things around when you're tired and everything's on the line. We had a really big test of that in the [ACT] final being 3-1 down and it was just a good a good experience to have discussed it and then go through it and then come out the other side. So it was good. It's great for the fans, not good for the coaches.
It's not something that we planned, but it happens and that's sports and that's how you adapt and how you react and that's the number one thing.
Q/ Tactically or strategically, are you wanting a shift in how the team has been performing or the players because that takes then a reorientation?
A/ I'm very clear on that vision. I've always said I wanted to defend to win but defend to counterattack to win so it's all about defence as a group, not where the strikers don't defend. They need to defend in this environment and because of that we can attack from anywhere and that's the work in progress. That's what we're trying to do and that's not easy, but at the same time, the more we attack the happier they are. So, if we're defending and winning the ball then we are attacking. That's the kind of the philosophy and vision I'd like to bring.
Q/ To achieve all of this, you need the kind of players that you think will deliver. So, is the coach a part of the selection committee process?
A/ You hear a lot of stories around how teams are selected. I've been really clear up front and they've been respectful in that space to allow me to choose and finalise the team that I would like, within reason. I mean if I'm way off that's a totally different conversation, but within reason, I have the final say. That's why there's been a few changes, so yeah, I can't say that anyone has interfered with my selection. It's just maybe the timing of the selection—we get told to select quite early which is a bit difficult to manage because there's 12 games post the the original selection. But, I'm happy because we've given everyone the opportunity, the philosophy is clear and the boys are excited to play and everyone's had a good opportunity to play.
Q/ How is it having an ex-player in Dilip Turkey as president of Hockey India? Has it helped?
A/ For sure. I played against Dilip, so the characters of international players and support and teamwork are there. He wants the best for Indian hockey. He wants his team to do well and yeah that's been helpful and then there's also commander Elena (Hockey India CEO Elena Norman) and [Hockey Indian official Renu] Bala. All very passionate about what we're trying to do here and we had a really good send-off. They did a really good job, they brought the families in to represent the players and hand their shirts to them. I like that touch because we're all about family as well in this environment and how we try and create that.
Q/ What are the team’s strengths and weaknesses?
A/ We have a strong goalkeeper situation, with three-four really good goalkeepers. Penalty corner is strong―we have one of the best in the world with Harman and we have another two-three flickers behind him. The fitness levels and skill [are good]. There is a lot of speed that Indians have naturally and they like to attack. We just need to enhance the conversions of circle entries to goal shots and maintain our high penalty corner conversion rate.
Q/ You were talking about goalkeepers. Has Krishan Pathak evolved enough to eventually fill the big shoes of P.R. Sreejesh?
A/ For sure. Krishan has had a lot of games―100 caps. Sree is on 300, but yeah. And, there is a good group of goalkeepers coming in behind that train with us, which is really important. To answer your question, Pathak is world-class on his day and can hold his own for sure.
Q/ If you win gold in the Asian Games, you get into the Olympics directly.
A/ Yeah, I mean all roads lead to qualification and we are on this journey and we are really excited about it. But we are humble around the fact that we have work to do and everyone is hunting us as the No 1 ranked team at the tournament.
The expectation is we should just win the tournament and it is never like that. We know that we have got a lot of hard work to do; we are doing it and we need to keep pushing. We go into the tournament with full confidence and if our environment is good and our culture is good, if we have done enough of the right things for the right amount of time with the right people with the right communication and the right belief, then the score takes care of itself. But, if we cut corners, we will get found out and we go again, because there is another qualification tournament in January.
At the end of the day, it never stops, because what happens after the Olympics―it is going to be another tour. You want to work in eight-year cycles.