Bengaluru, November 7: India hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne took a deep breath when faced with a difficult question about his predecessor on Tuesday (November 7) and picked his next words carefully. "It's not because I added something that we won the Asia Cup; all coaches, including Roelant Oltmans, added something," he replied, explaining India's back-to-back wins over Malaysia in the continental tournament held in Dhaka last month.
It's not Japan or China; Nor has Pakistan posed a big problem for India as Malaysia have done in the past. Two losses - 2-3 in the Hockey World League Semi-Final in London in June and 0-1 in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh (Malaysia) in early May - caused quite an uproar in hockey circles. It even led to the ouster of the previous men's coach, Roelant Oltmans, and brought Marijne, the head coach for women then, into the helm.
It wasn't just the loss to Malaysia that compounded India's worries. A 2-3 drubbing at the hands of Canada meant India finished sixth in the HWL Semi-Final and earlier, the 0-1 defeat kept India out of the Azlan Shah final. Results apart, the number of field goals, despite India dominating possession, went down which prompted Hockey India to act - and act quick they did.
In Marijne's first tournament since taking over the team, the ruggedness had vanished at the Asia Cup. They defeated Malaysia 6-2 in a Super 4s match and then held on to win the final 2-1 in Dhaka on October 22.
If not for his style, what do you put it down to then? Marijne, a former player in the Netherlands, put it down to the players taking up responsibility on the pitch. "They took responsibility really well," he told reporters on the sidelines of the national team camp at the Sports Authority of India campus here. "One of the things really nice to mention is...at the end of the game against Malaysia, the players chose the defending style. They adjusted on the pitch for the last few minutes. I was not able to coach it from the sides. They have to make the choices. I was really happy because we not just won but the players took a decision. They took a lot of initiatives by watching clips from the opponent."
He also put it down to his playing philosophy, something he is imbibing to youngsters at the academy level. Marijne later flew to Delhi on Tuesday (November 7) to pay a visit to the national academy, which is envisioned to produce the core group for the 2024 Olympics.
"Importance is speed in the play and speed in the running," Marijne said, outlining the style he wants the youngsters to follow. "Players have to be fast to play at the highest level. They have to be able to play give and go. I'm not interested in touching the ball 100 times. I'm more interested in give and go. But the most important thing is that they create choices for themselves, playing with their head up. If they do that, they can play the ball or go themselves. Indian players are really skillful. If we only play give and go, we don't use our strength. But we have to use it in the right way. That's what we are doing now. That's the message from me to the academies. If your head is down, you have only one choice: running with the ball. If your head is up, you can pass or go yourself. That's one of the important things we're talking about in ball possession."
But it would still be too early to read into the impressive showing at the Asia Cup. India, ranked No 6 in the world, went into the event as the highest-ranked team. Nothing short of a win was expected of them.
The real test will come in the HWL Final, which will kick off in Bhubaneswar on December 1. Here, India will be up against higher-ranked teams in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany. Placed in Pool B along with Australia and Germany, only England is ranked lower than India.
"It will be interesting (to see how the team will perform)," Marijne said. "I said before the Asia Cup that I'm really looking forward to seeing how the team is reacting to situations and it was nice to see. We also have to be realistic. We played against teams ranked 12, 13...but it's also really difficult to play a tournament as the highest-ranked team...you have to win. It gives another pressure. It's nice to see how they handled it. But now we play against the highest ranked teams. We have to use it to see where we are in the world. What is our position and where we need to improve."
The team will depart for Odisha on November 21, and are scheduled to play friendlies against Argentina and England.