The Indian hockey head to the 19th edition of the Asian Games in Hangzhou with lofty ambitions following their impressive displays under new coach Craig Fulton at the Asian Champions Trophy. The men in blue have been termed as favourites by a multitude of experts and will hope to live up to the high ambitions.
Ahead of the nation’s opening hockey game in China, former Indian player Viren Rasquinha, in an exclusive to News18, opined that the unit has what it takes to back up the favourites tag at the multi-sport continental event.
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Rasquinha shed light on the pragmatic style of play adapted by the Indian unit under new coach Fulton, who took over from the more attacking and expansive-minded Graham Reid.
“First of all, we have to appreciate the immense work the Graham Reid regime did. First Olympic medal for the men’s hockey team in 41 years, that is a great achievement, and the Indians played amazing hockey at the Tokyo Olympics,” the Arjuna awardee began.
“We absolutely did not live up to our potential at the Bhubaneshwar FIH Hockey World Cup early this year. So, a sort of mixed results as such, but it is good to see a new coach in Craig Fulton and I think we have excellent coaching staff as well- Shivendra Singh, I’ve played along with him. And incidentally, I played against Fulton at the 2004 Athens Olympics as well when he was playing for South Africa,” Rasquinha reflected.
“I think the analytical coach has also a lot of work to do and it is interesting to see Paddy Upton as a mental trainer as well. So, I’m sure there will be new tactics, new strategy.”
“If you look at the Asian Champions Trophy, playing style-wise, there is a lot of difference to the side we adopted during the Graham Reid time, where we were playing a much higher press, taking more risks, throwing much more into attack. I think with Fulton, it is a more pragmatic style where we are making sure there are no gaps in the defence, keeping it tight and playing quick and fast on the counter,” he continued.
“There is no right or wrong to this and every coach has his own style of play. For players who represent the country, playing at the international level, one of the important qualities is to adapt and adapt really quickly. And to be able to execute what the coach plans. I think we executed it pretty well at the ACT. We were very impressive. We were strong and consistent, and the fight we showed in the final was great to see- to come back from two goals down against a team like Malaysia which has historically given us problems in the past. It was great to see that,” the 43-year-old said.
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The Indian team has had to undergo a change ever since the disappointing showing at the FIH World Cup 2023, which was hosted in Bhubaneshwar. As subpar as the national unit’s performance at the marquee tournament on home soil was, Rasquinha opined that the dip in form was emblematic of the nature of the game itself and that all good teams go through such testing phases.
“We played badly at the home World Cup in Bhubaneshwar, there’s no two ways about that. We definitely underperformed and underachieved. But sometimes that happens in major tournaments. It happens to every top team in the world. It was unfortunate that our dip came during the home World Cup. But in terms of potential, calibre, talent and ability, I think this Indian men’s hockey team in my mind is undoubtedly a firm favourite for the gold medal,” Rasquinha asserted.
“But being a firm favourite on paper means nothing. You have to execute it on the ground. You have to be clinical, and mentally very strong,” the 43-year-old cautioned.
“I think teamwork and fighting spirit are going to be two of the most important ingredients this team is going to have. Make no mistake, there will be several challenges that will crop up. There will be times when we will struggle to find that goal and that is the time when the temperament of the team will be tested and that is where the really strong players have to stand up.”
“We have got many good players on the team. We have Sreejesh, Manpreet, Mandeep, who have been really impressive, but the forward line of Lalith, Sukhjeet, Gurjant, Abhishek, Mandeep is such a talented forward line and if they get us goals at crucial times, that will take a lot of pressure off the team and off Harmanpreet Singh,” he concluded.