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Let's not blame the coach factory for the derailment
Ever since he set foot in India, Michael Nobbs has been worried by the fear of failure. Even if he knows perfectly well that his contract is secure until 2016;even if he realises that he has been asked to build Indian hockey brick by brick;even if he understands that no coach in the world can produce wonders in 12 months. . .
That's because of India's tendency to touch euphoric heights or hysteric depths in a matter of seconds. The same country which reassured him last year that qualification to the Olympics mattered more than the eventual position in London, asked him in all curiosity soon after the Delhi qualifiers in March: "What medal will we win?"
"Strange, " was his muted response to the query. But the turnaround in expectations baffled Nobbs no end.
In New Delhi last year, the 58-year-old Aussie successfully reintroduced the art of playing hockey the Indian way in his Power Point presentation. His mantra was to exploit the country's strengths rather than adopt the highly structured European system. The Aussies did it, combining the merits of India's freeflowing hockey with their own speed and skill. So why can't the Indians?
Nobbs' mix of sentiments and truth fetched him the job and with it the responsibility of hauling the nation from the depths that it had sunk to. But little did he realise then that a year later in London he would be called upon to teach his players what the entire world knows is inborn - instinct.
India's fatuous streak at the Olympics, with no player acquitting himself well, saw Nobbs admit he was embarrassed by the performance. "It's frustrating that it requires me to get them back on track time and again and get the tactics working, " were his words. Plenty to be garnered there.
One of Nobbs' problems after he took over was player revolt and fitness. The two issues were intertwined. It took many months for him to arrive at his nucleus as he had to first weed out some of the seniors, who were both intransigent and unfit, before allowing his exercise physiologist David John, who shared Nobbs' strong work ethics, to focus on the others. This perhaps ate into his time as he was hard pressed to din his ideas into players in as short a period as possible. There weren't many matches that India's Olympic team played as a unit. Whenever it did, the ebb and flow in performance was evident. A win was followed by a perplexing defeat, with Nobbs confiding that he had to start from the basics again during team meetings, times without number. The players too have got a yelling but on many occasions, Nobbs refrained from upping the decibel levels for the fear that it may adversely affect the team. Apparently, in London, even his appeals fell on deaf ears.
Nobbs' biggest challenge when he took over was to tell the players to eliminate the passback. His way was forward, which the Indians had completely forgotten after having worked for two years with Spaniard Jose Brasa. The passback was laden with possibilities, in terms of pace and direction of the attack. But the forward pass was always doomed to reach the opponent provided India's off the ball running or setpieces were well worked out The Indians were poorly prepared on both counts. The virtues of pressing and retackling, so elaborately practised at the camps, went missing, transferring the pressure to the midfield and subsequently to an already brittle defence.
To be sure, Nobbs tactics hinged much on pressing and retackling with the intensity of the press depending on the opposition. He was aware of the danger of counters that his system attracted and said he had the checks and balances in place, at least on paper. He had also carved out a smooth interchange of forwards and midfielders but that, strangely, was absent in London.
Nobbs knew all along that Sandeep Singh and VR Raghunath were the worst India could afford in the defence. To his horror, both drag-flickers had nothing new to show even in penalty corners in London. Their flicks were decidedly slower and less venomous, according to analysis done in Spain prior to the Olympics, and the duo had been thoroughly sorted out by the opposition.
Nobbs also knew Tushar Khandker and Shivendra Singh weren't the most mercurial on the frontline. SV Sunil was all speed and no direction. Midfielder Gurbaj Singh was a mere shadow of himself while SK Uthappa, Manpreet Singh and Birendra Lakra were too raw for the big stage.
So why did Nobbs choose to mollycoddle such a half-baked team? "I would hate to see all the hard work everyone has done in the last year to try and resurrect hockey in India go down the drain with a poor result, " he had said, secretly perhaps hoping that a miracle in London would answer his prayers
Had he been forthright, rejecting suggestions of resurgence of Indian hockey in London, he would have done the game a big favour.
Having said that, the current situation does not give anyone the licence to hang Nobbs. No team is prepared for the world stage in 11 months. Nobbs deserves a chance to continue, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
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