The Rediff Interview / Cedric D'Souza
'As a team we will give nothing but the best at the World Cup'
I didnít have to wait long to catch Cedric DíSouza, the chief coach of the Indian hockey team. He had told me to be at the hotel lobby at ten in the morning on a Sunday, and he was there five minutes earlier, after a swimming session with the players.
The 26 probables for the hockey World Cup, at Kuala Lumpur, from February 24 to March 9, have been practicing at the astro turf Corporation stadium in Chennai for the more than three weeks. The camp concluded on January 27. The team will be named on the 31st.
Unlike the impatient man I had met just before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, D'Souza looked very satisfied and confident of himself.
Excerpts from the conversation:
The FIH [world body] ranking has placed India at the 14th position. Are you disappointed?
Not at all. They are entitled to give the ranking. It is part of their system. If you want the top ranking, you should be the top team. We havenít performed as per the ranking format, and that is why we are in the 14th position. But I am happy.
In the qualifiers for the World Cup, India finished fifth but a first time qualifier like Cuba is ranked seventh because they are the South American champions...
In the qualifiers, we went with the purpose of qualifying. Seven teams qualify to the World Cup. Our concern was the target of qualifying and we achieved the target.
The thing is, ranking is immaterial at this stage. The most important thing is to perform well at the World Cup. Nobody really cares about ranking or your reputation.
Pool A has very strong teams like The Netherlands, Pakistan, Germany... . Do you feel it is advantageous for India that it is in Pool B?
At this level of hockey, there is no question of advantage or disadvantage. Any team that is going to play in the World Cup is a good team. We are not going to make any of the mistakes that we made in the qualifiers. It is going to be one-match-at-a-time, and then proceed from match to match.
We will not go blindly into a match. We will have different strategies for different teams.
Your first match is going to be against Japan on the 24th of February. Do you expect it to be a comparatively easy match?
We have played Japan in the qualifiers and also in the Champions Challenge Trophy. So, they are known devils. For that matter, most of the teams in the tournament are known devils, excepting Cuba, about which we do not know much. But with modern technology and the resources that are available, it shouldnít be a problem to assess any team. We have to plan accordingly. Each match is going to be different and we have to plan for each team based on the strengths and weaknesses of the other team and our own strengths and weaknesses.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your team? And, what are your main strategies for each team?
No, I can't say that. If I reveal all that, it will be flashed everywhere! See, nobody will reveal his strategies; nobody.
Just before the camp started, you said your team had made mistakes earlier, and even in the Champions Challenge, which you won, the players had made mistakes and you wanted to rectify them. Have you rectified them now that the camp is getting over soon?
Let's be honest about it. There are some perennial problems in Indian hockey. One of them is goal scoring, and the other is our set-pieces. We are working on these two issues on a broad base.
Over the last year, we have been traveling a lot, and I was making assessments on the other teamsí as well as our teamsí strengths and weaknesses. I was also trying to figure out who are the players who are mentally tough enough to play hockey at the international level. It was the first phase, the assessment.
Now, it is the preparation stage. And, the final one comes in the World Cup.
I keep telling my boys one thing: 'We have to identify our mistakes, rectify them first and then move on.' I donít mind them making new mistakes but they should not make the same mistakes again, because when you commit the same mistake again, the opposition coach can plan accordingly. But when you create new mistakes, even I, as the coach, doesnít know them. Then, how would the opposition plan?
So, it is basically... try and eradicate the old mistakes. As we are all human, we err.
For the last several years, everybody is talking about Indiaís weakness in converting penalty-corners into goals. Why is it that Indians cannot get over that problem?
It is a question of adapting to a given scenario. It is the improvisation at the top of the circle when you are presented by a sort of running out. Not that we havenít trained for it. We have trained very hard for it. Still, it happens.
Look at the statistics of the best teams in the world that converts penalty-corners on a regular basis. It is 30 per cent.
What about India?
Our success rate is 15-20 per cent.
What does India lack?
At this stage, I can't comment on that.
Does that mean you have identified the problem?
We have identified and rectified our mistakes. The question is, like I said earlier, how do you adapt to a scenario? That is the most important thing. Decision-making on the top of the circle at the 11th hour is the most important thing.
You may go with a previously planned scenario, but it may not happen that way. That is the adaptation you should work on. When you are faced with a different scenario, different from what you have expected, you should be capable of taking a decision.
Doesnít mental toughness play a major role in such situations?
Yes. I think mental toughness and match temperament are very critical elements of International hockey. You may be exceptionally good in tactics but you may come a cropper when it comes to big matches. Match temperament, aggressiveness, mental awareness, commitment, focus... all these should be a part of your personality.
A professional hockey player, in my opinion, has to have three qualities, which are very critical: fitness, skill, which is form, and finally mental toughness. If you donít have one of the three, you are not a complete player.
So, We are working on all three aspects to try and get our team back on the rails.
You were the coach of the Indian team for the 1994 World Cup and then the 1996 Olympics. How much has the game changed in these eight years?
The game has changed tremendously. From 1994-96, and í96 onwards, the game has completely changed. The reason being the 'no offside' rule which came into play. When there is the 'no offside' rule, the players are running towards the baseline, and the whole ground gets elongated. So, tactical hockey has changed.
We are trying to adapt to the new scenario. It is moving in the right direction. I am not worried about that. We have a good bunch of lads.
When I interviewed you just before you left for the Atlanta Olympics, you had said, during your times, you were winning all the time and that made Indian hockey complacent. While you were napping, you said, the whole world caught up with you. When you woke up, international hockey had moved far ahead. You also told me then that Indian hockey had to catch up a lot. Have we caught with the top teams?
Well, if you look at what happened in 1996 and today, the sub-juniors have won, our juniors have won, and we have won a couple of tournaments as seniors too. So, automatically, there is a good transition between the age groups that are there.
Another thing that you have to understand is, you have got to change with the times. Today, every team has become more professional, and we are also doing the same. In any sphere of life, if you become professional, you move ahead.
Ten years ago, you didn't have e-mail, Internet or computers. The media changed with the times. So have we.
I donít say, you blindly follow; you adapt to a situation. Whatever you can pick up, you pick up and then adapt it to your strengths.
Long ago, India dominated the hockey scene in the world but from the 70s onwards, youngsters got more interested in games like cricket. Is that one of the reasons why we slid down in hockey?
Cricket and hockey are two different sports. Hockey is our national game. The key issue is: is the game marketed well, especially in the electronic media? Cricket has taken off into a big league. Letís not compare.
Like you said, because cricket is marketed well and hockey is not, do you think there is no passion for hockey among talented youngsters?
No, no. I donít think there is any dearth of talent in the country. Yes, there are not as many players as there were when we were winning continuously.
After Vishwanathan Anand became a top name in world chess, India started producing more and more highly-talented young chess players. Now, they are winning the sub-junior and junior titles at the international level....
Similarly, let us have a couple of good victories in hockey, and the pendulum will swing. I am not saying that a cricketer will become a hockey player. The focus will go back to hockey to a certain extent. So, what is needed are big wins. Once winning becomes a habit for us, youngsters will get attracted to the game once again. Then, sky is the limit.
In December, your team won the Champions Challenge Trophy. How do you analyse the teamís performance?
Let me go on record. When I took on the job, I made a statement to the government and the hockey federation. I had three objectives. One was, to qualify for the World Cup, second was to win the Champions Challenge, and the third is to win a medal at the World Cup. I made this statement before I saw the team.
Now that we have achieved the first two objectives, I am looking forward to the last objective.
The Champions Challenge was an important tournament because we wanted to get back into the League Six. The last time we were in the Champions Trophy on qualification was in 1995. In 1996, the Champions Trophy was held in Chennai, and because we were the host country, we automatically qualified. But in the Olympics, we came 8th in 1996. So, there was no question of qualifying for the Champions Trophy.
And, to be in the League Six is very important because you get to play six matches with the top teams in the world on a regular basis. With that, your confidence level grows. You must also understand that when you rub shoulders with League Six on a regular basis, there will not be any inhibition when you play the big tournaments.
Now, we can take on anybody in the world today. There used to be a big disparity in the top Six once, and that is not there anymore. Any team can beat any team on a given day.
Last time you had told me, you were a strict disciplinarian. Are you still very strict with the boys?
I am very strict with them. They know that I am a no-nonsense coach. I want hundred per cent commitment from them. We have a very healthy relationship and the communication channel is open all the time.
The key issue is that we are working very hard, and tirelessly. The most important thing is, we are one solid unit as a team.
Has the Juniors winning the World Cup made the seniors more motivated to win the World Cup?
There are two ways of looking at this. Let us be very honest about the situation. The Juniors won the World Cup because there were many seniors playing in the junior team. We have 14 boys in the senior team that played the junior World Cup team.
So, more and more younger players are becoming senior players...
Yes. That is one aspect. Number two is, last year we exposed them on a continuous basis, taking a lot of chances. For example, ten boys went to the World Cup qualifier, ten boys went to the Azlan Shah; we shuffled the boys around. We wanted them to play senior opposition on a regular basis. That makes it easier for them to play at the junior level, as there is 30-40 per cent difference between the junior and senior World Cup. There is more body play, more tactical manoeuvres, more strategy, and more power at the senior level.
I went on record well in advance saying that we will win the Junior World Cup, because I had seen them play in the seniors. It is good that we won the Junior World Cup.
What happens now is, there is a newfound confidence in the junior players when they come to the senior team. Number two, if there is any cause for complacency, it has been eradicated because everybody is trying to get into the team. There is a healthy competitive atmosphere there.
I had a major problem in the Champions Challenge Trophy because I was allowed to take 18 players; but on the given day, you are allowed to have only 16 players on the bench. Dropping two was a major problem for me because everybody was playing well.
I have the same problem now. I have 26 boys here [at the camp], and I have to choose 18 players. Now, when we play matches everyday, it is a hard-fought match. Every player wants to be in the team. And, that is fantastic.
I can say this with confidence and total sincerity that we, as a team, will give nothing but the best at the World Cup. There will be no stone unturned as far as working hard, giving our commitment and giving our best are concerned.
Ever since hockey changed, many experts and coaches have been talking about the need to combine the traditional Indian style of skillful attacking hockey with hard-hitting and hard running. After the juniors won the World Cup, the junior coach said, that was what he did. Do you also feel the same?
Each coach has his own method of coaching, and I do not want to say whether somebody is right or wrong.
I do not want you to comment on any particular coach. I would like to know your opinion on combining those two methods.
It is a very simple thing. Todayís hockey is played in a certain way. You have to adapt within your strengths to counter whatever the opposition throws at you. If it means a choice between power hitting and playing traditional style or a blend of both, so be it. It all depends on match to match. A complete international player today has to know every aspect of the game.
I am a strong advocate of the view that we play modern hockey within the parameters of our strengths. Yes, we have our strengths, and our skill is our strength. We have to use our skill and our creativity. That cannot be curbed at any cost.
My plan is a combination of our skill with power and tactics.
While talking about his experiences while playing for a club in Germany, in one of his interviews to rediff, Dhanraj Pillay said that over there, players listen blindly to the coach. As a coach, do you feel players should do so?
There are two ways of looking at it. A coach canít demand respect, he can only command. Number two, a coach cannot be a dictator. If fear comes in between the players and the coach, creativity is lost automatically.
I will not say that players should blindly follow the coach. There are set movements, which you have to play on, and that has to be done on a strict regular basis. But they have to creative too.
As long as the players work within the parameters of team game plans, there is no problem. If you are going to spoil the game plan, you will be pulled up by the coach.
Yes, there is a situation in the western countries where you follow the coach blindly. I think that is because they have based the entire game on hard running, set-pieces, etc. So, there is not much of creativity in terms of skill factor. That is why they say the Asian style is the best. We have skill. They have also skill but not as much as we have. So, they play within their parameters. And, we work within our strengths.
What are your expectations from the team in the World Cup?
I assure you we will do our best. My biggest motivation as a coach started at a very young age when I was a player. The motivation was to see our national flag flying high. We saw it in the Dhaka tournament, and we saw it the Champions Challenge. Now, I am looking for it in the big one! I am waiting for that proud moment.