Is India sufficiently prepared for the London Olympics? Don’t you feel we qualified by beating weaker teams?
We have qualified and we are preparing for London. Period. In the past even France held us to a draw. We drew a match against Poland and we did not make it to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. You would have seen the way the players moved on the turf. The way Sandeep Singh played was very impressive. I expect the team to do well in future tournaments.
During the qualifiers you worked very closely for a few weeks with the team. What changes did you notice?
Coach Michael Nobbs asked me to join the team for the qualifiers and I worked for 15 to 20 days with the players. I shared my experiences with them. I really liked the way the players were keen to learn from me. Over the last few years our defence wasn’t strong enough. We had the talent, but we couldn’t play to our full potential. So we really needed to improve in that area. The players did show overall growth in the qualifiers.
Can you mention the specific areas where the team showed marked improvement?
When I joined Michael Nobbes and David John, I found that the team had greater fitness and more unity. I saw a lot of improvement in the attack. I worked on the defence. These areas have improved.
In some circles it was speculated that FIH wanted India to qualify at all cost, so they picked weak teams. The job of our boys was made easier.
In India, we have millions of hockey fans. This game can regain its popularity. So FIH is right if they think India is a big market and India should play in the Olympics. But this is wrong information that the teams picked were weak. In fact, I have already told you some of the teams which played in the qualifiers have played good matches against us. Teams like France, Poland and Canada shouldn’t be regarded as weak. Why do you forget that we have shown significant improvement in many areas? And if the world body wanted India to play in the Olympic Games, what is wrong in that? Even I want to see my team in London.
You are now part of the selection panel. How satisfied are you with the probable players picked for the Olympics?
We’ve selected players on the basis of their fitness levels and performances in the recent past. And it’s been a unanimous decision.
What are your expectations from the London Olympics?
For me the team should finish among the top six. If we can get there it will be proof of marked improvement in the team.
But for some of the members of the team even a semi-final berth is a possibility.
The quality for which the team is fighting, even that target could be possible and we should appreciate that approach. But for me if they finish in the top six I will be satisfied. I expect a step by step progress. Given the kind of effort they have made in recent months, a top six finish would be realistic.
Who are the key players?
There are many players I have faith in. Among the defenders, Sandeep Singh and Ignace Tirkey are doing well. In midfield Sardara Singh and Gurbaj Singh are the key players. And among the forwards Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandker generate a lot of hope.
What are the weak areas where we need to work on before the Olympics?
We need to maintain at least the present level of fitness. They need to work harder in defence. The marking of the deep defence and the forward line is also required.
What about penalty corners?
Our short corner was quite impressive this time. Silly mistakes like not stopping the ball properly have to be avoided, otherwise it could create problems. Sandeep Singh and V R Raghunath are doing well in this and I have a lot of expectations from them.
How do you assess Michael Nobbs’ performance?
I have seen the improvement that he has brought about in the team. I wish he’d work more on the technical aspects. Fitness levels may go up further and team unity should be constantly emphasised. I really like the way he deals with the players. He has maintained the balance in performance in different tournaments and matches and if we go this way Indian hockey may see positive changes. The best thing is, because of him we are getting consistent performance. If we progress in the coming four to five years we can fight against the best in the business.