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Anand Philar
Ipoh, May 7:
Indian hockey team’s latest coach, Joaquim Carvalho, talks different language, something that the players fear and respect.

Since replacing Vasudevan Baskaran about a month back, Carvalho has asserted not just his status but also his will on the team. Depending on your perspective, it could be a good sign or sheer autocracy that has its own pitfalls.

In the two matches that the Indians played at Ipoh, Malaysia, in the ongoing Sultan Azlan Shah Cup eight-nation tournament, the team has shown a sense of purpose and method that were missing from the previous teams. Quite the most noticeable aspect has been the drastic reduction in individualistic play marked by endless dribbling that only won the applause from the stands but little else. The accent has been on first-time passing and quick release of the ball, factors that are so much part of modern hockey.

Cutting out such frills has injected the much-needed sharpness, though agreed that it is early days yet to pass a sweeping comment. The point is that there are strong indicators of an Indian team finally coming together as an effective unit that could be further developed into a top class combination.

``It’s a long process and we need to be patient,” has been Carvalho’s constant refrain. Though he is not the sort of man who would hedge his bets, the coach is wary of arousing high expectations that in turn would put him and also the team under pressure. “The players first need to get their confidence back, and everything flows from there,” he told me a day before the tournament began.

Last year, the Indian team took a battering, finishing a poor 11th out of 12 at the World Cup and fifth in the Asian Games where they suffered the ignominy of losing 3-2 to China, of all teams. These results led to the sacking of Baskaran besides a few senior players who were indeed lucky to have been in the team for the two major tournaments. The accent is now very much on youth and a fresh approach, as it should be.

Watching the Indian team and also Carvalho in action, reminded me of Cedric D’Souza whom I believe was the best coach that India ever had, probably next only to Balkishen Singh. Like Carvalho, Cedric took charge of the team barely three weeks before the 1994 World Cup in Sydney following the disastrous Asian Games campaign, replacing Zafar Iqbal. Cedric talked a different lingo and soon transformed the team into a fighting unit that imbibed modern style of play.

It is another matter that Cedric’s lack of diplomacy in dealing with players and the Indian Hockey Federation officials contributed to his in-out coaching career, but certainly, he had the hockey intelligence and commitment that few Indian coaches showed. “I am married to hockey,” Cedric used to say and so it appeared.

In the case of Carvalho, who in his playing days roamed the midfield using his considerable height and physique to check the rival forwards, he is a tough talking, no-nonsense guy who has little patience for trivialities. It is like him saying: “I am the coach and so I decide. Nobody else.” Honestly, admirable though the trait is, I fear that such a stance might lead to his doom given the politics of Indian hockey that venerates subservience. He is much like a gunslinger who shoots from the hip and straight.

To top it, Carvalho could be a strict disciplinarian who believes that performance alone matters regardless of training methods. “Using the laptop and such tools is all fine by me, but at the end of the day, whatever you do, should reflect on the field of play. For me, that is what matters and not so much how you go about,” he said during the same conversation.

Having known Carvalho since his playing days in the 1980s, he will not change easily. After all, he has been through the rough-and-tumble of life, experiencing some lows and highs, both on and off the field. After all, he was part of the team that finished 12th and last at the 1986 World Cup in Willesden, London. So, he is only fully aware of the darker side of hockey.

Hailing from Mumbai, Carvalho is a typical product of the metropolis that teaches you survival before anything else. At the time of taking charge, he put forth his demands that included a hand-picked support staff and also a carte blanche in decisions pertaining to the team. He realised that there was no honeymoon period and so, he made sure he got what he wanted.

``I am aware what I have got into,” he said with a canny smile. ``But, at the end of the day, if the team performs, then that is all that will matter.”

As coincidence would have it, Carvalho is much like Ravi Shastri, the stand-in coach for the Indian cricket team. Both know the score, the politics and the consequences of their actions, and both are from Mumbai. Neither will tolerate mediocrity and both have their own ideas on how to shape their teams and get them back on track.

Should Carvalho succeed and the team begins to perform, then there would be no better news for Indian hockey, and frankly, we do not have much of that at the moment! 


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