With just over six months to go for the 2020 Olympics, the Indian men’s hockey team is gearing up to execute its plans for a medal.
Having made the qualifying cut in November 2019, its priorities now are to sharpen strategies and figure out its best eleven in the upcoming FIH Pro League - a task that will fall to head coach Graham Reid.
His high-profile appointment by Hockey India in April 2019 was with a clear focus on a Tokyo 2020 medal.
Reid’s resume prior to that boasted of a successful stint with the his native Kookaburras, whom he led to the top of the rankings chart as well as considerable success along the way.
The 55-year-old Australian sat down with Olympic Channel to reflect on his assignment, challenges, his plans for Tokyo and more.
Early days under Reid
“For me, coming in as a coach was very interesting. I had watched India from afar for many years now, probably since after Beijing (Olympics) in 2008. So, it was good to get a feel in those first three to four months being inside the team,” recalled Reid.
“After that, it was serious business pretty quick when we had to come to Bhubaneshwar in June for the (FIH) World Series (Final) where we had to come in the top two,” he added.
For the Indian hockey side, 2019 was not very challenging given their non-participation in the FIH Pro League. Unlike most other hockey teams who were facing top-ranked sides in the brand-new tournament, India spent most of the year facing teams ranked below them on the FIH charts.
India’s biggest challenge of the year was the FIH Series Finals, winning which helped India reach the Olympic qualifiers. However, despite playing lower-ranked sides in the one-off qualifying series, adapting quickly to Graham Reid’s philosophy was a challenge.
“We played Russia in Bhubaneshwar in front of some 10-15 thousand people. It was a very nice experience for the guys. It was shaky, the first game. We didn’t come out as well as we had thought but the second one was good, which we won 7-1. That was probably the highlight.
“Of course, the fifth team playing the 23rd team, you would expect us to win. But as was seen throughout the Olympic qualification, the lower-ranked teams often came out and played better than what their ranking showed. But we did it, and now the focus is on 2020,” explained Reid.
A Change in perspective
It will be a debut for India in the FIH Pro League this year, where they will play the reigning Olympic champions Argentina, world champions Belgium, Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain.
Remarkably, at the Olympics 2020, India are clubbed alongside Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Argentina and Japan, which means they will have faced all of them in the FIH Pro League’s round-robin stage ending in June.
Not surprisingly, Graham Reid is looking at the league as an opportunity for improvement rather than assessing other’s weaknesses.
“We don’t get to choose our opponents. It’s a draw of luck (chuckles). But, the real positive that I am looking at is that these are high quality games. Two of our three games are against the top two teams in the world. That is invaluable to me… and you add to that Argentina, New Zealand, Spain and the others, it soon becomes a very important and quality competition,” concluded Reid.
Having qualified for Tokyo 2020 - both India’s men and women’s hockey team - to end 2019 on a strong note didn’t mean Reid let his boys lose sight of the big prize during the downtime.
“We had a good camp in early December, where we focused on individual skills and testing and improving areas. We ended up with ‘get better’ plans, like I like to call it. Because it's an individual development plan for all the players.”
“Now, we are ready for the Pro League season. It’s a bit of a first for an Olympic year. Usually, you would have a tournament or two like the Champions Trophy or so, but this time it’s the Pro League where it’s the ‘home and away’ kind of situation. So, yes, it will be a bit different from what countries are normally used to having during the preparation for the Olympic Games,” he explains.
Starting the year with an intense tournament such as this, Reid is looking forward to experimenting with his players and getting his best eleven for the Olympics. “Probably these in the first three-four games we play, it will be about selection trying to work out our best team combination. And then, as we get closer to the Olympics Games, the biggest change that a country has is that in a normal FIH competition you can take a squad of 18, but at the Olympics, you can take only a squad of 16. So, those extra two spots are quite crucial when it comes to selection and working that out,” he added.
India begin their Pro League campaign against the Netherlands on January 18.
From there on, the action will be intense and with little let up until Tokyo 2020 arrives. This year will be a defining one for Reid and his team.