Paul Van Ass

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Flexibility is the key but players must be willing

Does position matter?

Coaches don’t seem to think so but players certainly do.

I know for certain—when playing my brand of gully cricket—I’d never open. Simply because I never felt comfortable facing the bowling right off, maybe because I wanted to have a dekko at the opposition first, or maybe simply there’d always be someone clamouring, “Hurry up and score some runs and get out; I want to bat too.”

That’s beside the point.

It’s psychological.

There’s a comfort factor associated with a player’s favoured position. That’s his lucky number.

Or that’s what he’s been accustomed to playing at or where for a long, long time. To move him around is a travesty of natural justice—to him.

Team Director, Ravi Shastri, the man who began at No.11 and batted his way up to No.1, does not believe that Indian batsmen can own a spot in the line-up. He feels that there’s a crying need for horses for courses. A player’s position will depend on the quality of the opposition.

He said:

“In this team, no one owns a batting position. It all depends on the situation. We will play horses for courses and see what the situation and the opposition demands. Accordingly, we will see what the best batting position in the side is for each batsman against that particular outfit and seeing the state of the series.”

Flexibility is the demanded norm. Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara responded splendidly scoring centuries at No.3 and No.1 respectively.

The ploy worked.

The original strategy, though, of having Rohit Sharma come in at No.3 has fallen flat.

Sharma oozes talent but he needs the extra protection and a long rope for him to succeed. There’s little doubt about his calibre. He needs some time to come into his own. His lazy elegance is his undoing, much like David Gower, but both batters would defiantly deny any such claims vigorously.

(The  most technically adept player—after your openers, of course—should be No.3. In this side, it appears to fall upon either Pujara, Kohli or Rahane to fill this spot. Sharma is probably best at No. 4 or 5. In my opinion, you cannot have Rohit batting at that spot when the wicket’s a belter and then push him back when seamers make the ball talk and he fails. It’s just not fair to the others in the side.)

Former India hockey coach Arjun Halappa is on the players’ side when it comes to switching them around.

Paul Van Ass’ implementation of ‘Total Hockey’ is criticised as being too ‘harsh’.

“It’s very tough. When I started playing under (Jose) Brasa, I was a right winger and I was played as a central midfielder. I got really irritated at first, but gradually when I started to understand what the team wanted, I adjusted. But everyone can’t adjust.

I think it was too harsh on the part of Paul Van Ass to make those position changes straightaway in a big tournament (Hockey World League Semifinals). It could’ve been done gradually. Europeans have their own thinking, and they think they are always doing the right thing. But when they come to India, they have to understand the culture, language and players. You can’t just walk in and get things done the way you like.”

It differs from player to player. Every player needs to feel secure that he will not lose out when he’s moved to unfamiliar territory and where he may not immediately perform as expected. They deserve to be given some time to prepare and adjust. The challenge is mental. Visualization exercises with the team psychologist are not a bad idea.

Results will come when players are happy. Unhappy players are a dampener on performance and results. Process must take precedence.

‘Made in India’ or imported? Coach debate begins…

The furor over Paul Van Ass’ dismissal has barely died down and the debate shifts to whether Indian hockey would be better served by a home-grown coach.

It is evident that Van Ass may have been on Sports Authority of India(SAI)’s payroll but Hockey India satrap Narinder Batra’s writ runs large on the appointment or removal of key support personnel.

The above assumes significance in the context of Dhanraj Pillay’s telephonic conversation with the HI chief suggesting that it’s time to look at national talent in the recruitment of coaching staff.

English: Dhanraj Pillay, former Indian field h...

Dhanraj Pillay, former Indian field hockey player and captain(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speaking to DNA India, Pillay said:

“I called Batra yesterday (Monday) after all this happened and told him that it was time they considered an Indian for the coach’s job.

Batra sounded very positive about the idea of an Indian coach. He told me that they will definitely think of an Indian coach now.”

Batra confirmed the news:

“Yes, he did call me and we had a chat about this. We will take all decisions after that meeting on July 24.”

A special committee meets on Friday to deliberate over Van Ass’ fate.

Narinder Batra, meanwhile, lost no time launching a scathing attack on the Dutchman.

Calling Van Ass “a liar”, Batra claimed that he had sought the erstwhile coach’s permission before speaking to the team.

He said:

“India’s match against Malaysia got over and the team had done the victory lap. The sponsors and organisers said ‘the team wants to meet you’ and I asked if I was suppose to go on the ground. They said yes and went down’. The first person I met was Paul and then I met the team. We had formed a circle and I asked the coach if I could speak to the players. Paul said yes and that was when I started speaking to them.

I was talking to them in Hindi. I spoke for about 45-50 seconds and told them that ‘your performance needs to be consistent. You had defeated Australia in Australia. You need to be more consistent as you guys are playing together for four years now. Nobody likes to lose, not even the sponsors. So you need to be winning more’.

My next sentence would have been that forget about all the previous matches and concentrate on the upcoming games and try to be in the final. But before I could finish, Paul intervened and said ‘I am the coach and you leave’. His tone was pretty rude.

Then I left, saying that ‘we will talk about this later, we need to talk about this, Paul’. After that India played two more matches, even the women’s team was playing, I watched those matches but Paul never had the time to come to me or ask for any time.”

It is a foregone conclusion that if Van Ass’ ouster is ratified, Indian hockey, in all probability, will have an Indian coach till the Rio Olympics.

From cricket to basketball to soccer, sports federations in India have opted to hire foreign coaches to fill the lacunae between what locals can offer and what internationals bring to the table.

That it also helps counter allegations of parochialism and regionalism dogging the appointment of local candidates is besides the point.

I am not going to argue the merits or demerits of either policy.

What Indian hockey does not need is a stop-gap measure wherein a candidate steps in and molds the side till the Olympics and is then either lionized or made the sacrificial lamb depending on the results achieved.

Continuity has to be the name of the game.

And it would help even further, if recognised coaches were introduced at all levels starting from the sub-juniors to the seniors so that players are grounded in the basics at the right age.

The seniors may grab the headlines and the glory but it’s the youngsters who are hockey’s future and they need to be told in no uncertain terms that they are not being handed step-motherly treatment until they are done weaning.




Paul Van Ass is sacked to salve Batra’s ego

Hockey India (HI) president Narinder Batra is at it again.

This time, it’s Paul Van Ass—the latest incumbent in the chief coach’s hot seat.

Terry Walsh, the previous coach, was unceremoniously dumped by Sports Authority of India (SAI) following Batra’s allegations of financial impropriety.

His replacement, Van Ass, stepped in to prevent a dressing down of his players during the Hockey World League in Belgium following their quarter-final win against Malaysia.

This did not go down well with the HI chief.

The result—a sacked Van Ass.

Indian hockey loses yet another coach and Van Ass’ experiment with Total Hockey ends prematurely.

Indian Hockey is poorer from this rapid-fire chopping and changing of coaching personnel. The churn in support personnel is probably more than within the side itself.

Viren Rasquinha, former India player and CEO of Olympic Gold Quest, commented:

“It doesn’t matter whether the next coach is an Indian or foreigner. When we ask ourselves about our new coach, there are two things that we need to know. One, who are the people who can coach our team. And secondly, the most important question is that who will want to come here knowing that there is absolutely no job security.

How can we give a team in transition a chance to move forward when the coach keeps changing? A new coach brings his own ideas. He goes out, another idea comes in. We don’t need that.

We are now running out of options. There are not many people who are available. What we need to realise is that every new coach needs a certain amount of time to settle in. He will take a few months to know the system, the players and the situation that they find themselves in. Starting from scratch is a new coach’s biggest problem and it seems to be happening on a far too regular basis here.”

Rasquinha added:

“The performances in Antwerp were bad. You look at the participating teams there and you wouldn’t be satisfied with a fourth place performance. We scraped through against France, beating Poland 3-0 was expected.

Pakistan didn’t play full strength and yet we drew 2-2. But what shocked everyone was the 15 goals we conceded in the next three games against Australia (2-6), Belgium (0-4) and Great Britain (1-5). I don’t remember the last time an Indian team conceded that many goals in three games.”

Terry Walsh reacted thus:

“I’m not surprised. This must be the next part of the puzzle.”

He added:

“I’m saddened by what I see and hear. I don’t know what transpired between them (Batra and Van Ass) but I believe HI is simply not in sync with what’s going on globally.

I’m not saying that Van Ass or myself are the best fit, but it’s incredibly important from the point of view of not just Indian hockey but world hockey, that HI give a better account of themselves and what they do and how they do it because whatever they are doing is inappropriate.

When I was India coach, I tried to establish a greater say for the High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans. I wasn’t asking anything for myself, but was only trying to get better protocol, where people who knew what they were doing were making the decisions rather than people who didn’t. But now it’s people, who don’t understand what’s required at the international level, who are making decisions again. This is a case of ego vs common sense.

I watched India play at the HWL in Belgium and felt very sad. They’ve lost quite a bit and I can’t blame them because they’ve been pushed through a series of cultural changes with so many coaches in and out. Brasa brought in European knowledge and tried to club it with the Asian style. After him, Nobbs spent a lot of time doing nothing. Then, I mixed the Australian and Asian style. Now, Van Ass brought in the European model again. Spare a thought for the lads who are forced to cope with all this. Consequently, Indian hockey is deteriorating with each passing month.” 

India’s recent performances especially at the Asian Games where the team won gold and thus qualified directly for the 2016 Rio Olympics has Indian fans hoping that there will be a podium finish in the offing next year.

These hopes may be belied.

The gap between top international sides  and the also-rans is yawning.

India is ranked ninth; Australia, Netherlands,Germany, Belgium and England are in the top five.

The results speak for themselves. Unless the men’s hockey team can beat the best of the best on a consistent basis and in tournament play and not bilateral series where coaches field experimental sides, dreams of a medal are just that.

Discontinuity in coaching personnel and playing styles can only worsen the prognosis.

The clash of egos off the field only foretell more misery for Team India on it.

Van Ass brings total football to Indian hockey

Indian hockey has a new coach, Paul Van Ass, and his first real big test comes when the men in blue participate in the Hockey World League semifinals beginning June 20 in Belgium.

The Dutch manager has decided to try out a brand new strategy dubbed ‘Total Hockey‘.

Van Ass said:

“We are working on the new set up of 10 players going on the attack and all 10 coming back to defend. We have been practising the style for some time, but we will come to know about the outcome when we start playing.”

The concept is not novel.

In this year AFC Ajax won their 4th UEFA Champ...

In this year AFC Ajax won their 4th UEFA Champions League title (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was first introduced by Dutch soccer club team Ajax Amsterdam in the mid-sixties.

It was refined further and used by the national side at the 1974 World Cup.

The Football Bible website describes the strategy thus:

“Total football’s main strategy is to possess the ball as much as possible. Players position themselves far from each other and pass the ball around. While the ball is being distributed, some players move around to get into good scoring position.     

There are three main objectives in a total football defense: keep the ball away from the goal, intercept passes, and mark deadly strikers. Total footballers work as a unit in defense. They narrow down passing lanes and work together aggressively retrieve the ball as soon as possible.”

Total football was a response to tight man-marking employed by Italian teams. They termed it “catenaccio calcio” which literally translates to mean “door bolt football”.

The Football Bible adds:

“Coach Rinus Michels of Ajax defeated it by making his players move to different positions. This soccer strategy created a dilemma for the man-markers.

If they chased their man, they would find themselves in the wrong position when it is their team’s turn to attack. If they let their man go, they are risking the chance of leaving an attacker open.

Rinus trained his players so they can easily adapt to any position. Opponents who were not as well-adapted as the Dutch total football players found it difficult to keep up.”

Total Football, however, was not invented by Michels. It was an Englishman named Jimmy Hogan who laid its foundation in 1910. Its basic tenets were player stamina and ball passing.

Johann Cryuff, the fulcrum of Michels’ strategy, introduced a variant of Total Football as a manager with Barcelona.

It goes under the name “tiki-taka”. It is this very style that took Barcelona and Spain to the pinnacle of European and World soccer.

Can Total Hockey work for Team India?

It depends.

Indian players have the dribbling skills to implement the strategy. It can also help defeat heavy man-marking of the forwards.

Do Indians have the stamina to fall back on the counter-attack? The forwards have traditionally been too laid back to rush back and defend. Can they overcome this inherent trait? Does the team, as a whole, have the stamina and versatility, especially in defense,  to make this strategy successful?

Brazil, arguably the team with the best footballing skills, have never resorted to Total Football.

Can India, hockey’s Brazil, make it work?

We shall see. And we shall certainly cheer.

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