Tribune News Service
Chandigarh, June 5
Another coach begins his journey with Indian hockey. Hopefully, this journey will not be cut short before its time — at least not without a rational reason — like many before it.
It took a patient search, of almost three months, for Hockey India to settle on Graham Reid as the replacement for the sacked Harendra Singh. He came highly recommended as well. The legendary Ric Charlesworth, who was also being talked about as a contender for the job, apparently put in a good word for his former protégé. Reid has the credentials as well. The 55-year-old Australian has an Olympics silver (in 1992) and World Cup bronze (in 1990) from his playing days. As a coach, he learnt from the best. He was Charlesworth’s assistant from 2009 to 2014, a period that included two World Cup gold medals. As the head coach, he guided Australia to two Champions Trophy gold medals. However, at the 2016 Olympics, Australia finished sixth, leading to Reid resigning.
The patience the federation showed despite pressure from the media and former players and Reid’s credentials point towards the probability that he would complete his contract period till December 2020. The initial exchange was nothing but words of flattery — the federation proud of their find, Reid expressing his fanfare for Indian hockey, which has become customary for incoming foreign coaches. The players have remained largely quiet about their new coach, or they have been very correct — encouraging signs, though in Indian hockey, relationships can turn sour in no time.
That moment has arrived for Reid when his relationship with the players and the federation will be tested. After almost two months of his appointment, the Australian will face his first real test in charge of the team — the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar.
India’s performance at this Olympics qualifying tournament will potentially decide Reid’s future — or set the tone for his dealings with the federation and players — in India.
Though the Series Finals is not a high-profile tournament, owing to the low-ranked participants, the stakes for the team and Reid are equally very high. India will have to finish among the top-two in Bhubaneswar to be assured of a spot in the final Olympics qualifiers. If they fail, India will have to hope to get in on the basis of their world ranking.
Reaching the final in Bhubaneswar should not be too hard for India. The world No. 5 hosts will play Russia (world No. 22), Poland (21) and Uzbekistan (55) in Pool A. Pool B has Japan (18), South Africa (16), United States (25) and Mexico (39). India’s first real test could against either Japan, the reigning Asian Games champions, or South Africa, the second-highest ranked team in the tournament, in the semifinals.
The attacking Africans tend to trouble India, but lately the Men in Blue have been dominant. India won their last fixture, at the World Cup in Bhubaneswar, 5-0.
Japan could prove a little trickier. However, the continental champions have not even been able to manage a draw against India in recent times. Over the last couple of years, India have registered wins as big as 9-0 over Japan. But the margins have shrunk lately, especially in crunch matches. At last year’s Asian Champions Trophy, despite having beaten Japan 9-0 in the league stage, India just about got past them (3-2) in the semifinals.
India haven’t felt that sort of pressure in months, and Reid hasn’t had much time to prepare them either. The Australian oversaw the year’s first national camp, which lasted a month and had 60 probables, but he joined only midway through. He got to test the players in friendly matches in his home country, which led him to an obvious conclusion – India need to improve their finishing. “Our ability to score goals under tight marking pressure will be critical if we are to close the gap with teams like Australia,” Reid said after the team’s return from Australia, where India were beaten 4-0 and 5-2 by the hosts.
The tour was followed by a 15-day camp in Bhubaneswar, where the team worked on creating “as many opportunities as possible for our attackers to experience this tight pressure”, Reid said. But will the training translate into results? Most of Reid’s predecessors have been left frustrated with the answer, and the Australian will soon find out. India tend to struggle against teams that are disciplined in defence, especially when the pressure is high. Japan is one such team.
India are still the odds-on favourites to win the tournament. Reaching the final shouldn’t be too difficult, barring a meltdown. However, just winning the tournament or reaching the final might not be enough for Reid to impress the demanding Indian federation and fans. Anything other than convincing wins over the “minnows” would attract criticism. In that case, Reid could also lose the respect and support of his team. A coach losing control over his players is not a new scenario in Indian hockey; and Reid is not known to be a hard taskmaster.
Reid’s lack of time with the team would work in his favour. It’s easy to assume that analytical coach Chris Ciriello, who has been in India for over a year now, had a say in the training and selection decisions before the tournament. Yet, the Series Finals is a perfect opportunity for Reid to make an impressive opening statement and take control of the team.