I really didn’t want to be the one writing this piece but the apathy, chaos and politics that has plagued Indian Hockey over the last…. (Forever) years; has forced my hand. The first ever hockey tournament that I witnessed as a kid was the Champions Trophy in 2003. The Indian team were a talented bunch and there were some memorable games. The one where they conceded 4 goals in the last 5 minutes against the Dutch after leading 3-0 stands out (Not the best memory, I know). However, the day I truly fell in love with the Indian National Team was its memorable comeback against Pakistan. After being down 4-2, they pumped in 5 goals in the last 20 minutes to win 7-4. I can never forget Gagan Ajit Singh’s effortless brilliance in that game. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Sadly, though, a huge chunk of my Indian Hockey memories ever since have been filled with nightmares and heartbreak. The Reason… The Power-Hungry, Short-Sighted, Mind-Less Officials that make up the national hockey federation/s (You’re probably wondering what this means. How can a country have more than one governing body for a sport ? Google will give you the low-down on this one).
The national team has been through 23 coaches in the last 23 years, no less !! On so many an occasion, the team has flattered to deceive on the big stage. Despite its general dominance in Asia, they’ve never really delivered on the world stage (Olympics, World Cup & Champions Trophy). Of course, there are many reasons for this both on a technical as well as on a psychological level. What however, has never changed is the way the national federation/s run the show.
Time and time again, players and coaches are brought in or axed for no reason. In the case of players, politics may well play a huge role but often times no reason is given at all. When it comes to coaches though, especially foreign ones…there is a common thread that links them all. Not one of them has ever lasted the duration of their contract !!
Foreign Coaches & The System
Over the years, several illustrious names have come and gone. Ric Charlesworth, Michael Nobbs, Jose Brasa, Terry Walsh, Paul Van Ass and now Roelant Oltmans. All of them came in, thinking that they could change the system and none of them ever lasted long enough to see out their vision. They all believed in the talent of Indian Hockey. Yet, all of them clashed with the federation on some level and were eventually shown the door.
All these foreign stalwarts have had varying degrees of success with the national team. Yet the case of Roelant Oltmans stands out. Why ?
Enter Roelant Oltmans
Oltmans was initially brought in as the high performance director for Indian Hockey. After serving in the capacity for 2 years, he was made the head coach of the National Team. What he did thereafter, was unprecedented in Indian Hockey. The team started to go toe to toe with the holy trinity of World Hockey (Netherlands, Germany & Australia). India also managed its first podium finish in the Champions Trophy in 2 decades.
Even more impressive was the manner in which the team was playing. While all previous coaches had brought unique improvements to the team, there was something truly different about this Indian team.
The team was exhibiting a brand of hockey that emphasized controlling the tempo of the match. Similar to that observed in football, the team switched the ball from flank to flank searching for openings. In the past, India could only manage sporadic phases of high attacking intensity against top tier opposition; the rest of the match would be full of chaotic play.
Also, noteworthy was the fact that the Indians had severely reduced their use of random crosses and hits into the attacking circle. Most heartening of all these new changes though, was the team’s mentality. In the past, their shoulders would drop after trailing a goal or more which would eventually result in a loss. This would then have a ripple effect on the team and their subsequent displays in the tournament would be disastrous. This time though, India would have none of it. Steady performances even when the chips were down, became a hallmark of this team. Their improved display in the Olympics was an example of this (India was the only top team to beat the Olympic Champions Argentina).
So what went wrong ?
When my friend informed me of Oltmans’ sacking, I was shocked to say the least. For the first time in many years, India finally had someone who had forged a great blue print for the future of Indian Hockey. The national team finally had a sense of continuity and cohesion to achieve a long term vision. Moreover, they were playing a brand of modern hockey under a coach who knew how to bring out the individual stick work of the Indian players in a flexible tactical set-up. He had also mastered the art of the rolling substitution, thereby ensuring that tired legs wouldn’t concede late goals (A bane of almost every Indian Hockey team over the last decade).
The story goes that Oltmans’ results in 2017 were below par. Sure, there were a few bad games. Then again, when integrating youngsters into the fold, such results are bound to occur. The High Performance Team that reviewed Oltmans’ results and his actions claimed that they wanted short term results as well and wanted to win the Asian Cup. (Didn’t he just do that ?) Yet, quite bafflingly, they claim that success at the Asian level is not a benchmark for true success (Guys, please make up your mind).
They then go on to state that India’s victories in the recent part were more lucky rather than deliberate (A huge dis-service to Oltmans work). So, they apparently want someone who can make India defeat the big guns on a regular basis and win pretty much every tournament that they play (God, maybe ?)
Conclusion & Looking Ahead
While the high performance team might have the right goal, this was a terrible decision to make. It takes a 4-5 year plan for a coach to truly implement his vision and bring sweeping changes. From the looks of it, Oltmans was well on his way to achieving his goal until the high performance team decided to put paid to his dreams (Heck, he is the coach of Olympic and World Cup winning teams). It couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, with the World Cup a year away and the Olympics not too far away either.
I’ve seen this kind of thing in Indian Hockey way too many times to keep rambling on about it. The politicians, a bunch of short-sighted & grumpy former legends (You’ve been brilliant but it’s time to think ahead) …it all seems too familiar. I’m not sure what the real reason is but it might appear as though all may not have been well with Oltmans and the federation (If rumours are to be believed). One thing is certain though.
In Oltmans’ words, many coaches have come in and tried to change the system but the truth is that it’s a near impossible task. He didn’t deserve this…not by a long shot. Thank you for everything and wish you all the best in your future endeavours. A true legend of the game !!
May the Lord have mercy on Indian Hockey !!