20 percent away from Olympic medal level but we are on right track: Graham Reid
- India hockey coach says he wants to try out young players to ensure he is not missing any “diamond in the rust”.
When it rains, it pours - chief coach Graham Reid resorted to the adage with a chuckle. When a 22-member squad led by Manpreet Singh leaves for Argentina on Wednesday, it would be the second international tour in as many months after going a year without it.
The team will play two FIH Pro League matches next month and four practice matches against the 2016 Rio Olympics champions. It will be India's first Pro League assignment since February 2020, the start of 10 matches in the tournament over the next couple of months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.
The Australian coach is all too happy that the games are coming thick and fast. India resumed international hockey last month with a tour of Germany and Belgium, playing two matches each against the Germans and Britain and returning undefeated with two wins and two draws. Reid then learnt about Germany halting sporting events again earlier this month. “We got lucky there. If that tour was now, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Reid thus realises that he has no guarantee on the volume of matches to firm up the core of the team for Tokyo. In this chat with HT, he talks about the challenge of finding the balance between trying out different players and producing a consistent run of results before the Olympics and his assessment of the team’s current level.
What were you biggest takeaways from the Europe tour matches?
The first was just how important international competition is. You can try and look at positives of everything and say we could play high quality games within our squad (in Bengaluru). But it’s still good to get out and play against different types of teams with peculiar strengths. The biggest takeaway was that we’ll treat every single game from now as really, really important, because we don’t know how many more we’re going to get. Hopefully, we have a lot coming up, but we just don’t know. The second aspect is the feedback loop: the players make mistakes against particular types and styles of teams, learn from that, go back, improve, try something else and see how that goes. After we came back from that tour, we’ve taken 2-3 things and incorporated that into our training.
What was your assessment of the level produced by the players after the long break…did it surprise you?
I’m not sure I was surprised, but I was pleased. It’s like anything you haven’t done in a while. Like if you ever skied and came back five years later and you’re like, “Can I still do this?” I think there was a little bit of that in the players. And it was nice for the boys to say, “Okay, we’re still up at that level”. After Germany played us, they beat Holland quite convincingly. So that’s a good omen for me. But we’ve got a lot of things to work on. We just have to keep getting better in certain aspects.
How far do you think that level is from the one you'd want to see at the Olympics or one that is required to be competing for medals?
I think of the number 20 per cent: in terms of our improvement and development as a squad. I think that’s realistic and achievable. Now where do you find that 20 per cent from - corners, corners against, more penetrations in the circle, less errors inside our own; things like that which we’re trying to work on. And I think we’re on the right track.
Will the Pro League matches in Argentina be a start to getting closer to that level leading up to the Olympics?
I don’t know. Look, I’m only talking about what happens traditionally in an Olympic year, wherein you try and build up to be ready for the Olympics. This year you have that uncertainty surrounding pretty much everything. Is this going to be our last tour? Is this going to be our last few games before we head to Tokyo? But any team that I’m involved with, we go out full on every single time we play. And everyone’s vying for selection, so they’re looking to show what they can do.
As things stand, you have 10 Pro League matches between now and the end of May. Is that enough number of games to be well prepared heading to Tokyo?
We’re also hoping to play in some other competitions in June, so hopefully we can add to that number. That would be the cream on the cake, if you like. But yes, having 10 games against world class opposition is, well, at least some sort of good preparation.
You played quite a few inexperienced players in the Europe tour matches, and you’re taking a few to Argentina too. Could we see youngsters continue to be given more chances as you look to finalise the core for Tokyo?
That’s probably the biggest thing for me. I want to make sure there’s no diamond in the rust that we’re missing. We know how hot the climate will be in Tokyo, which is why fitness is going to be really important, and to see if some of the younger guys can stand up.
How will you strike a balance between having a look at as many players as possible and getting the right results over the next few months to head to Tokyo with confidence and form?
That’s the problem you have as coach: trying to get the balance. I think you always need a core of really good players so that the younger players are not just standing there alone and caught short. I’m always very wary of that. But I think every coach struggles with that. It’s important we take the best team to Tokyo. And to do that we have to take some risks and make sure we’ve uncovered everybody.
And this is the apt time to do that before hunting for the right results?
Yes - discovering the unknown and then moving towards something where we can say, “Okay, now we know what we’re dealing with”; who’s in good form, who’s playing well, what combinations work.