The hot topic of the day in India right now is the Delhi elections. While it's political weight as a state may not be much, the battle for Delhi has become a prestige fight for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), it is a battle to hold on to the only state where they are in power.
But while the whole nation gazes with bated breath at Delhi and waits for the results to trickle in on February 11, there is another major story that is unfolding in the South Eastern part of India – Bhubaneswar to be particular – which needs to be paid serious attention.
The Indian hockey team – which has given India eight Olympic golds and many other great moments of celebration – produced a performance which suggests that, finally, after many years of disappointment, it may be heading back to the top of the hockey world. On Saturday, February 8, it defeated World and European champions, and the no. 1 side Belgium 2-1.
This is not an isolated good performance. Just a few days ago, India defeated World Cup runners-up Netherlands 5-2 at the same ground and had a draw the next day, following which they won the shootout, thereby effectively, winning two games in a row. This run of great form has seen the side climb to the fourth place in the FIH rankings, below only Belgium, Netherlands, and Australia.
Story of Indian hockey's revival
So, how did this turnaround happen? What were the factors behind it? Well, to understand this, we have to look at what has happened in the last year, and even before that.
In 2016 Olympics and 2018 World Cup, after much hype and raising of hopes, the team got eliminated at the quarter final stage. After more of the usual chaos that Indian hockey has become accustomed to in recent years, a major decision was taken to appoint Australia and Netherland's former coach and former Australian player Graham Reid as the team's coach.
In an exclusive interview with International Business Times, India, Reid revealed that he had talked to the legendary former Australian coach Ric Charlesworth, with whom he had worked as the assistant coach for the Australian team, and he encouraged him to take up this job.
In the same interview, he also revealed that he believes that his team should play an aggressive brand of hockey where they push hard and put the opposition under pressure. This, he believed, would not only put weaker sides, but even the top teams under pressure. Well, the results of recent times have vindicated this thinking.
The fact that the Indian team were able to win against the team possessing probably the best defence line up – Belgium – shows that Indian forward line and midfield is not lacking the potential.
But Reid didn't focus only on attacking. The team also underwent a special training camp to improve their defending and especially focused on stopping counter-attacks which become dangerous when the team is playing a high press.
The Olympic qualifiers against Russia were easy though there were a couple of hiccups with the defence. But, with Chinglensana Singh – the ace midfielder – and SV Sunil – the veteran forward – back in the line up, the team was only getting stronger.
Reid was also very smart in striking a balance between harnessing the natural talent of Indian hockey players while also bringing in some new dimensions. In another exclusive interview with IBT India, he talked about how he doesn't want the Indian players to completely lose their desire to dribble the ball. He was clear that a little bit of ego is helpful in sports.
At the same time, the veteran coach also inculcated a sense of selflessness in the players. So, they dribble when they can but also don't hold on to the ball when they don't need to. Playing aggressively is something that suits Indian players but they needed to do it in a smart way. The success of the current regime has been to provide the right template for performance.
Lastly, let's not forget the incredible fitness of the Indian side. This is something that has been the case even before the arrival of Reid and something for which Hockey India should get credit. If you think the Indian cricket team is fit, you haven't seen the hockey side. Almost all players could easily leave behind the much-hyped, yo-yo test level fitness of cricketers like Virat Kohli.
All these factors have greatly contributed to the Indian team's success. But the real test would come later in the year when the team head to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. If they don't make the semi-final, at least, all this success would be forgotten and things would seem to be back to square one. Let's hope this success is a harbinger of great things to come in future.