Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ten things I think about hockey

Not that it matters, but anyway... Let me amuse myself in making a point or ten, ogay?

1) Sad that we did nt win at Ipoh. Ipoh has been a favorite hunting ground for India with the many Azlan Shah Cup wins unlike Kuala Lumpur, where the honeymoon of the 1975 World Cup win has soured over the years. And the more recent addition of Kuantan where we ended up 5th at the last Asia Cup makes me feel that Malaysia should host all the events at Ipoh! With Ipoh having far more Chinese-Malaysians than Malays and Indian-origin peoples, even an India-Malaysia match is not as skewed as a match in KL in terms of crowd support, one would think. It would have been a good thing to enter the World Cup not as benevolence from FIH (as the fourth reserve from the World Hockey League), but because we deserve it as a right (as the continental champions). But that day will have to wait for a bit longer, thanks to the Indian disease of last-minute heart attacks.

Now I have one more reason to love Ipoh:

2) The team that got sent to Ipoh was/is young and inexperienced as Akashdeep Singh, Danish Mujtaba, Gurvinder Singh Chandi and SV Sunil were laid low with injuries. On top of that, Sardara Singh went through a bout of viral fever prior to the first match against Oman. Some of the injuries can be attributed to the shoddy state of the polytan turf at the SAI center in Bangalore. I hope the busybodies at Hockey India end up re-laying this turf instead of letting the team shift practice and conditioning venues every time. Akashdeep has been reported to have suffered a career threatening injury, Gurvinder has been out of action for a long time now. It is really not clear if Gurvinder will be the same player if and when he returns back. At 24, he still has time on his side, but still not much (may be 3-4 years!).

3) While a lot of credit gets dished out to Roelant Oltmans, the High-Performance director, I would give most of the credit to MK Kaushik sir. MKK was appointed as the Coach in a last-resort move by the clueless HI after the Michael Nobbs gravy-train had hit the point of no return. With a European style under Oltmans and an Australian style under Nobbs, who was pulling up Sardara as the first-among-equals, the team was splitting vertically from one boondoggle (Australian-speak for contradiction) to another. The banishing of Sandeep Singh from the team and his replacement with the then-shoddy VR Raghunath was equally crass. The same can be said for Bharat Chettri's case, but then at 33, Bharat must have been hoping for some miracle to have been available and pickable for the Rio team.

MKK, one of the few gems in Indian hockey coaching annals, had been banished from all hockey teams since he had been accused of seeking sexual favors by a large section of the senior women's team. While not one to condone sexual aggression against women in any form, it is also not within the realms of reality that MKK indeed sought and used the services of a prostitute rather than seeking favors from the team and team selection policies did play a role in some of the accusations. Without getting too much into details, and even if there can be a strong case made against MKK, it will always be a tricky tradeoff when smart people come with crappy flaws. Does one burn the house for the sake of integrity and values, or are values and ethics subject to re-interpretation of the situation at hand? What does Krishna say about this dilemma?

I would take a page from the American NCAA coaching annals (Bobby Petrino, Joe Pa and the like) and say that the answer is subjective and dependent on the context rather than written down in glorious red ink on a gold plate and framed with impenetrable shimmering glass. While theory is good for the higher mortals of this earth, practice is left to the poorer ones like at HI. The HI apparatus did a commendable thing in recalling MKK, but then it was a one point caveat (qualify for the WC or else) to MKK. Whatever one says, MKK did pull the team through in not losing to Malaysia in the semis. I would stick with MKK because he is a known performer (he pulled the women's team to their ONLY gold at Bangkok in 1998).

All that said, MKK and Oltmans still have a conflicting style of hockey-ing and a good performance at one event does not wish that fact away. The Indian style is neither European nor Australian, it is Indian. We are not the run-athoners, we are not the non-stop army-style machines, we are no longer the deft stickworkers, we are no longer the magicians, we are mere mortals playing a stupid game followed by even more stupider people, we are not 200% fit, we concede last minute goals, we eke out draws from the clutches of victory and defeats from the clutches of a draw, we define ourselves in slowing the game sufficiently to speed up as and when we choose. While all this may seem hyperbole, that is indeed the Indian game and the state of Indian hockey in a nutshell.

4) The last minute appointment of a goalkeeping coach and the excellent form of Sreejesh during the tournament only makes me feel that placebos do exist in reality. Sreejesh has been limping back and forth between excellent and shoddy form and it was always a when, not if, as to his return to form. That said, we do not have a steady stable of reserve goalkeepers with a 34 year old PT Rao serving as the backup here. This reality is atrocious. You cannot have a team that wishes to climb up the rankings with one in-form goalkeeper. On placebos, if a sports psychologist is what it takes the team to beat up the mental dragon, so be it. Why cannot the HI apparatus have a sports psychologist on the panel of team staff befuddles me. It has befuddled me for eternity, but that is a different story.

5) The Continental Cup champions standings will see India update itself from the 4th position (540 points) to second (700 points). This is because of the four year window, which will see the expiry of the 2009 Asia Cup where we performed disastrously (5th) and a 25% weightage for the 2010 Asian Games where we still performed disastrously (3rd). With the 2013 Asia Cup getting a 100% weightage, the cumulative score (which is 100% of the 2013 performance weighted by the ranking secured in the event + 25% of the 2010 performance weighted by the ranking secured in that event with ties broken by the more recent better performance trumping the far-off one) will see India rise to the second in the Asian standings. The weights are 750 for the first place, 700 for the second, 650 for the third, 540 (90% of 600 for Asia) for the 4th, 495 (90% of 550 for Asia) for 5th and 450 (90% of 500 for Asia) for 6th. Note that the Euro-centric FIH has allocated 100% of weighted points for the top 36 finishers in Europe, even though not more than four of the European teams (Germany, Netherlands, Spain and of late England) can claim to be good. That is one of the other games FIH plays, skewing the world of hockey to its rules and controlling the weights that other teams secure in their continental tourneys!!! No wonder teams such as Belgium have been able to make a steady climb in the recent past and I hope the Flemish pull off from the Walloons, but yea, who cares.

In any case, all the calculations (I double-checked it and you can trust me on that) mean that we get the continent's share of 2nd finisher which is 700 points. So we rise from 1598 points to 1758 points (a 160 point rise), good enough to swap the 10th and 11th spots with Argentina at 1725 points (another one of those teams that missed the Beijing Olympics). The points update will also see Pakistan drop from 1920 to 1820, a drop from the current 8th spot to 9th. Meanwhile Korea climbs from 1923 to 2023 points, a rise from the 7th spot currently to 5th. Malaysia stays put at 13th despite a drop of 160 points to 1259.

This is the anatomy of how the Koreans have been able to stay stable despite being equals with India and Pakistan in almost every count, if not worse. They are able to win the matches that matter the most (finals and playoffs) and accrue points, a loss in those events that would see them plummet the FIH rankings. That sustained standing gives the FIH's nomination and benevolence (!) in case of a coin-toss. This is the exact gaming of the game that the Indians need to be aware of, will they? God knows. Despite claims to being the masters of everything under the sun from zero to kalpa, simple strategizing is not the forte of the hockey aficionados in India, and Indians, in general. The rise to the top is achieved by a 1008 toiled nights where progress does nt scream out in your face. Fight the battles that need to be fought, win the wars that need to be won. Anyway...

6) Despite the reserve route, our entry to the World Cup and a strong finish there will see us climb the ladder again. With Pakistan not coming through to the event, they are bound to lose more points relative to other Asian teams (India, Malaysia, Korea and even Japan -- because Japan has no points to shed on this count, but Pakistan has). While I understand how that can be for the Pakistani supporter(s) from seeing the Santiago spectacle before the 2008 Olympic Games, I would also be thinking of the shenanigans that the PHF played in 2007 when the Champions Trophy was shifted from Lahore to Kuala Lumpur, instead of India, which also clamored to host the event. With the PHF vetoing a move of the 2007 CT to India, the hitherto six-team CT expanded to a eight-team event to accommodate the Pakistanis who could not host the event due to their own self-created security nightmares. With Malaysia making the 7th team and England (the 9th ranked team on the FIH standings at that point) getting the FIH nod ahead of India (the 7th ranked team on FIH standings at that point) because of their 5th place finish at the 2006 WC at Monchengladbach, IHF (the then-runners of hockey in India) were left wondering about the miss between the cup and the lip.

7) Not only was that nod to England a contradiction to the FIH norms of "a good performance in one tournament should not make up for a shoddy last four years" (a justification for the four year cycle of the FIH rankings), that singular event exposes the creative way in which the Euro-centric FIH reads and interprets rules to the suiting of European (aka white) teams. First, the six-team event became a eight-team event and not a seven-team one, a possibility noone has explained why. Why was there a need to have two pools of 4 teams each when a round robin could not have added more than 6 matches (or 2 to 3 more days of the tournament)? Second, the Pakistanis were invited to the 2007 CT because the FIH removed them as hosts due to security reasons and the team should not suffer because of that, whereas when the CT was shifted from India in 2011 (ostensibly because there were two organizations running the game in India), the Indian hockey team was not invited for the Auckland event even though the team should not have suffered due to the fact that there were/are 108 organizations running hockey in India. Instead the FIH chose the Pakistani team as a reserve!! Third, the use of metrics as and which suits their agenda best is a no-brainer, but it is easier to document horseshit with pen and paper than in blood and gore.

In any case, that 2007 CT miss did bite back India dearly as the English team steeled further by their exposure against top teams was the one that won the 2008 Santiago Qualifier event to make their way to Beijing. As a person with a certain elephantine memory, revenge is indeed best served cold, and I am indeed happy to see the way in which the Pakistanis have found their way out of the event they "conceived." I really wish the Pakistani team the very best in climbing their way out of this rut, Insha Allah, as they say in Pakistan.

8) As for India, to climb the FIH rankings is a long-term plan. With no further ranking points for this year (to the best of my knowledge), one has to hope for a better 2014. The hope is that the reserves will be healthy and a good practice turf will be had.

And there are three big events lined up for 2014: World Cup is at The Hague in June, Asian Games is in Incheon from mid-September to early-October, and the Champions Trophy is in New Delhi in mid-December. To recall, Incheon won the Asian Games bid by beating Delhi after the disastrous remarks of the then Sports minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar. While the spectacular corruption of Commonwealth Games was still episoding on the side unbeknownst to the common man, and did nt reach its heights till early 2008, I am still thankful for MSA's remarks and the fact that New Delhi did not win the bid. In any case, it would be a double-icing on the cake to whip the Koreans as well as secure a spot at the next Olympic Games in Rio with a gold at Incheon. A good performance at all the three events will see us get to the top-six, which is where we really belong. I have been saying that for god knows how long that it sounds so stale even to me, but I persist. Losers are not the ones who end up losing, but those who believe they will end up losing.

9) That brings me to China, a team that could not have turned up at the Beijing Olympics except as the host. While one could claim that their second place finish at the Doha Asian Games in 2006 was enough justification of their getting a freebie as the host, their FIH rankings at the end of 2007 was 17! Again, steeled by exposure, the Chinese team finished third at the Kuantan Asia Cup in 2009 and fifth at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010. As the wise saying goes, "every man can only climb to his level of mediocrity," the Chinese have absented themselves from this event for whatever reason they could only conjure up. This no-show singularly pushes them to the 6th spot in Asia, independent of how well Japan (the eventual fifth place finisher) had performed at the event. The Taiwanese team was invited as a reserve and even if they did come out completely whitewashed, one does feel for debutants. With revenge part deux out of the way without even being said so, Oman did indeed spring a surprise or two by shocking higher ranked teams like Bangladesh.

That China as a host example also overemphasizes the importance of the mad rush to secure the Olympics berth at Rio when Brazil will be bestowed an automatic entry (or will they!). Incheon or bust, that is the motto for the Indian team. There is only a small gap (a one game performance) between losing out on a big event or not, like the Pakistanis can affirm now and the Indians and Argentines could have affirmed from their experiences in 2008.

10) Looks like Amit Rohidas, Nikin Thimmaiah, Gurmail Singh, Malak Singh and Manpreet Singh have made a successful transition from the junior side to the senior one. In the Indian context, the transitions are never perfect with a lot of pilferage on the way. While the 2001 Junior world cup winning team threw up players like Devesh Chauhan, Bharat Chettri, Jugraj Singh, Kanwalpreet Singh, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur, Arjun Halappa, Rajpal Singh and Prabhjyot Singh, the 2005 junior team ended with contributing Sreejesh, Sandeep Singh, Birendra Lakra and Tushar Khandekar. The much-highly touted 2009 team finished 9th and have so far contributed just Danish Mujtaba to the senior ranks. The captain Diwakar Ram has been lost as has been the case with much of the team. That said, the 2013 Junior World Cup will be in New Delhi at the end of the year. Hope this event could lead to something akin to what the 2001 team did at Hobart.

And finally, Mandeep Singh from the Ranchi Rhinos part of the Hockey India League has turned out to be one of those to look out for provided he remains healthy. It is sad that the other star performer Gurjinder in the World Series Hockey has been lost out even without making the team. Pilferage is not the way to climb the rankings. The importance of that sordid reality cannot be overemphasized. While the recently concluded Indian Badminton League (IBL) has secured the second spot behind IPL in rallying up the common man in India, one hopes that HIL continues its onward journey in early 2014. One also hopes that a team from Karnataka comes up soon (as was expected in the 2013 edition, but did not happen) so that the game becomes representative of the following in India. It would be even more excellent to have an Imphal Impalas or Imphal Indians to have a seven team event, but dreams can wait for a couple of years.



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