Many months have passed since Australia's Graham Reid took over as the coach of Indian men's hockey team. Under his guidance, the team has been playing aggressively and winning regularly. His next challenge comes when India face minnows Russia in Olympic qualifiers, at the start of Novement.
While the Russians are not expected to pose much of a threat, Reid wants the team to not let any complacency get into the players' minds. In this exclusive interview with International Business Times, India, the former Aussie international discusses the upcoming challenges as well as his estimation of the team's progress.
He also talks about his family, the experience of his wife in India as well as missing one of the most unique edible items from Australia.
What do you think about Indian team's performances in recent times? Are they improving as per your expectations?
Reid: It's been a little bit up and down. In the Tokyo Test event, I was expecting some rocky ground because there were a few younger guys who hadn't played and those connections take a little bit of time to come together. We train as a large group. So, those connections are there but not quite cemented well enough yet.
I think it was Bill Gates who said that winning is a bad teacher. You can talk about learning from a win but at the end of the day, we learn more from losing than winning. I think the tournament in Tokyo ended up being quite a good opportunity for us to look inwards and draw some lessons.
In our last interaction, you had mentioned counter-control as the area where you want to see some improvement. Are you happy with the progress made on that front?
Reid: One of my focus areas has been, what we call a tackling box. It's about one on one tackling and we have done a hell of a lot of work on it. It's been a good thing for us to work on because, at the end of the day, you break down a game and it comes down to one-on-ones in the field.
So, one of my catchphrases is that the game is a tackling box. Rather than them coming up to you, I need to put pressure on you, get the ball off you and tackle you. Then, when we get the ball, we go and play hockey.
I see a lot of improvement, especially, in our defenders but also, more importantly, in our strikers. Mid-fielders also need to be defence-oriented. It's like when I was coaching Australia, we don't have to teach Australians too much about how to go forward and attack. That is a natural thing.
I think, for some time now, India has been guilty of not looking forward enough. Perhaps staying back too much, to be a bit safer. We are trying to be a bit more attacking, bit more forward-looking and playing with a bit more freedom.
We have also seen your team scoring heavily in recent matches. That's also something that you want to continue.
Reid: Yes, I have a little formula that you apply to all the opportunities created in the game. It's like assigning a number between 1 and 5 for each of the opportunities you get. 1 is given for a touch in the circle, 5 for a shot straight in the front or a corner. If you add up all the opportunities, 'this one's a 1, that one's a 2, this one's a 3, this one's a 4,' you get a number.
The objective for us in the coming months is to increase, not necessarily the amount, but certainly the quality of those opportunities. And what that showed me in Tokyo was that the numbers we were getting from this exercise were reflecting in the number of goals scored.
In other words, for example, we generate, on an average, 20 points per goal. When we score 5, it's around 100 points. That means that the formula is sustainable. It's not a fluke. For example, sometimes when you score 17 goals, the calculations may not work. But this time, it worked. I was very happy about that.
In one of your practice sessions, you were asking your players to go forward but not score goals. Instead, they had to just keep passing the ball. Is that a cultural change you are trying to bring in the team, of players passing more and not running with the ball?
Reid: Yes, normally, midfield is where I want the passing and for players to give the first pass. Because, often, what tends to happen with this group is that we try to engage the player and pass through the man instead of passing beforehand. They also want to dribble. It's great at specific times and places. But good hockey is about understanding when they can dribble, when they should dribble and when they need to pass. That's probably what we are getting to.
Traditionally, it has been said that the young Indian players, instinctively, want to run with the ball. Is that something you are finding hard to overcome?
Reid: Again, I don't want to change too much because it's a natural thing and what they are very good at. So, it's just a matter of learning when to do it and when not to. There are times when you accelerate right through the gap and go for it.
But the objective is not to create a contest but the objective is to avoid the contest. That's probably what I want to get into their play. Use your dribbling to get out of the contest, rather than using it to get into one.
Is that where the ego of the player comes in?
Reid: Yeah, look, that's the sort of player you want. You want someone who has a strong sense of confidence and ego because they often make great elite sportsmen. But you also want them to leave it at times. I think it's Popovich from San Antonio Spurs who talked about leaving the ego at the door. It's OK to have an ego but when you are on the training track and you are with the team, that ego should disappear.
SV Sunil, in recent times, returned to the national team after being on the sidelines due to an injury. How important would he be, as a senior player, in an otherwise young forward-line?
Reid: Yes, it's an interesting one. We will see how that pans out over the next few months. It was very nice to have a good mix in Tokyo. As you said, there is Sunil there, who is a really experienced one. Then you have youngsters like Mandeep, Gursahibjit Singh, Gurjant Singh also.
Chinglensana Singh is still injured. He is one of the best mid-fielders in the world. How much is his absence affecting the team?
Reid: It's hard to know as I haven't been a coach when he has played. I have coached teams which he has been in, like UP and Mumbai in HIL. Of course, having someone like that sitting on the sideline is very frustrating, not only for him but also for us as coaching staff.
How he progresses over the next two months would be the telling factor moving forward. But it's always frustrating to see players like that not able to perform, not able to play because of their injury.
Russia is the team you would be facing in the Olympic qualifiers. They are not a much fancied team. What would be the approach to that game from your side? Would a full-strength team be fielded?
Reid: As far as I am concerned, I will be playing as hard and as strong a team as I can. That, to me, is most important. What's difficult is that you have to have one eye on Tokyo but both eyes on the qualifiers. So, for me, all the focus will be on that. Also, as soon as the draw was announced, I said to the team, 'I don't care what you think the last score was, 10-0, 5-0, whatever, this team that we play in November would be different.
It will not be 39 degrees. It will be nice 24 degrees. So, Russia would be a much better unit than what they were earlier. We have to prepare for that to be the case. So, prepare as though it is Belgium, Australia or Holland or any of those good teams. That's what we will be doing, trying to know Russia inside-out. The downside of having played them in June is that they would have footage of us. That's how this game works.
Your wife is here with you. Is she enjoying being in India?
Reid: Oh, she loves it here. It's such a great experience! My son is studying in Europe but he came over for the summer break. We went to local places around here, Bandipore and Mysore. It was really good fun, really nice, getting to see the markets and all that sort of stuff. So, yeah, she really likes it. She is doing some English teaching with the group and that keeps her busy. She is enjoying it.
Any local dishes that you have taken a liking to?
Reid: So, there are two parts. One is that, I was missing something called Vegemite (a food paste made from yeast extract that is very popular in Australia). My son brought it over when he was coming. But here, what I really like is Sambhar. Every day, I find myself having it for lunch. I like soup, so for me, it's like the Indian version of soup. Also the chicken soup is good.