‘Idiosyncrasies’, ‘track-suit’ and a ‘promise’: Chris Ciriello’s Indian connection
Not so long ago, Australian dragflicker Chris Ciriello was regarded as India’s nemesis. For two consecutive Commonwealth Games (in 2010 and 2014), Ciriello had scored in the final to deny India a gold medal. That until, Hockey India roped him as part of the team management, just before last year’ CWG in Gold Coast. Now, for almost two years, the former Australian great has been working with the Indian hockey team as the analytical/assistant coach-cum/team manager.
“My role is to analyse the games and help out as an assistant coach to Graham Reid. During tournaments, I also assume the role of the manager. I do help out Robin Arkell (Strength and Conditioning Coach) and David John (High Performance Director) occasionally in the gym. For me, my focus is to ensure everyone is comfortable speaking to each other on any issues off the field or on the field,” he says, explaining his role within the team.
For someone who has played over 170 games for Australia, adjusting to Indian customs was not fairly hard for Chris. After all, he has a deep-rooted connection with the country.
Chris’ mother, Suzanne, was born in Kolkata, while his grandfather, Rudolf Pacheco, played the sport for Customs in India. When Suzanne was around 10-11 years old, her family had moved to Australia. But despite the relocation, Indian customs and values remained an integral aspect of Chris’ childhood.
“From my whole life, I learnt about Indian customs, effectively. I didn’t realise how much I was brought up with the culture, until I came here to play in the Hockey India League. It makes such a big difference to learn about your origins and understand the idiosyncrasies. I realised how my mother brought me up is very similar to how the Indian players have been brought up,” he said.
Growing up in a family of hockey players, Chris was 4-years-old when he started playing the sport. Until he was about 12, his grandfather worked with him as a coach. “He was very disciplined and strict - very similar to Indian coaches that I have worked with.” When Chris was about 15, he made a promise to his grandfather - “So when I was about 14-15, I told my grandfather, that I would coach in India or for India, and he said if you put your mind to it, you would be able to achieve it and he gave me his blessing.”
The opportunity came his way in November 2017, after he announced his retirement from the sport. David John approached Chris to be analytical/assistant coach under Sjoerd Marijne for India. By that time, the Australian had already been working as a coach for nearly 10 years at his own academy.
“I spoke to my wife. It was a big change moving from Australia to India. After a lot of consideration, I decided to take up the job. I thought I could make a difference for the players. I wanted to be a point for them as someone to come and talk to - and to boost their confidence. I feel I have done that and that is something I am proud of.”
As a token of his appreciation, Chris gifted his grandfather the Indian team’s official track-suit before he passed away last year. “I was able to visit him just before he died. I was able to give him my track suit and a shirt, which meant a lot to him. He was able to see me coach two-or-three games during CWG last year. I felt glad that I was able to share the Indian uniform and track suit, which means so much to so many people,” he said.
Since moving to India, there have been several ups-and-downs for Chris. There have been frequent change in coaches -from Marijne to Harendra Singh, to, now, former Australian hockey player Graham Reid. The team also had to adjust to periods of lack of competition after the World Cup last year, with India deciding not to be a part of Pro League this year.
“It took a bit of time to bring the team back up, having some time off with fitness and our touch. As an athlete, you need some time to wind, but also stay in a reasonable shape. It was a pretty hard physical block but we have worked hard to be able to overcome that,” he said.
“In the last couple of tours, we stuck to our game plans. As a team, we played really well. It’s not just about scoring, but about set-up and working hard together and creating good connections. Now, with qualifiers next, we must stay focused and realise we need to continue to grow and develop,” he added.
Despite all the hurdles, Chris feels glad he made the decision to move to India. “I was lucky enough to play just under 200 games for Australia, and then come to my mother’s land, and coach the guys I have played with and against - and share my knowledge. There are ups and downs in every job, but I am happy that I took this one,” he signed off.