Once the invincible master of the field, Indian hockey in the past three decades attempted to ape the Europeans and played a game alien to them—a fast-passing, clinical affair far removed from the one that valued individual, inventive stickwork—to cope with the changes in rules that swept through the game. A return to roots was clearly needed. That return is the handiwork of an Australian who owes his love for the sport to an Indian. Michael Nobbs remembers that “precious moment” when love dawned. He was 11 or 12, and a friend had taken him to the house of a hockey coach, an immigrant from India. “In his living room, standing still, he dribbled the ball so fast I could barely see it,” says Nobbs. “I said, that’s what I want to do! And here I am, coaching the Indian team!” he exclaims.
Nobbs was relieved when India smashed France 8-1 in the final of the Olympics qualifying tournament last week. Failure could have been fatal. In some seven months, he’d adjudicated on the three-way continental clash of hockey styles. India was trying to play like the Europeans; what they needed was their own aggressive, creative hockey, with a shot of Australian vigour and method.
When India failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was a shaming blow for the eight-time champions. Forget styles, the sport seemed to be floundering under a corrupt administration, rife with infighting. In 2009, Jose Brasa of Spain became coach. We had a European to cement the European style we’d been trying to adopt after the introduction of astroturf. He left in 2010.
When Nobbs took over in July 2011, he found all the top players playing in this style—which emphasises defence, ball possession and stick-to-stick passes, rather than throwing it into open space. Europe’s defensive 4-3-2-1 formation was a reaction to the marauding Asian forwards they had been unable to contain on grass. The Asian style, with a 5-3-2 formation, focuses on attack, using space to stretch the opponent’s defence. They represent two opposing aesthetics—a mix isn’t usually successful or pleasing.
Nobbs brought India back to the Asian fold, to play attacking, creative hockey. It can be successful if you have very fast forwards and a solid defence. But constant, non-stop attack for 70 minutes is physically taxing, and it requires super-fit athletes. To make it work, Nobbs and fitness trainer David John worked hard with the team.
“John tested us all—speed, fitness, endurance,” says captain Bharat Chhetri. “He made a programme for all of us, and we worked very hard on that.” The diet was critical; carbohydrates were off. As was heavy, spicy food. “Even rice and rotis are not allowed,” Chhetri says. “We thought we must do this for our team, while we’re playing hockey.” The most important factor was using all 15 players. “We press so hard that you can’t sustain that pace for longer than six to nine minutes. You need to go off the field to recover,” Nobbs says.
Nobbs knows exactly how long each player can go full blast. He makes over 20 substitutions in one half. It’s “significantly higher” than the changes Brasa used to make—around a dozen. Players are able to recover in minutes with latest medical methods, cutting down recovery time, giving the coach 15 players ready to go all-out at all times.
“Our coaches have no idea of rotation, and Nobbs is obviously very good at it,” says Aslam Sher Khan, the former Indian star. Khan says while it’s cause for joy that India is back at the Olympics, we must be realistic. “At the qualifiers, we were up against very weak teams, in our own conditions,” he says. “Olympics would be infinitely tougher. Don’t even start thinking of a medal.” Nobbs agrees. He says his plans would take longer to bear fruit—several years, perhaps five.
India had fallen into such terrible days that merely qualifying for the Olympics has caused a media frenzy. More than making it to London, what needs to be celebrated is that India has shed its ambiguity of style and is playing to its strengths. Olympics glory will have to wait.