Shortly after the Indian hockey teams checked into the Athletes' Village in Rio, an interesting exchange took place on Facebook between head coach of the men's team Roelant Oltmans and Naririnder Batra, the chief of Hockey India.
On arriving to the rooms designated to them, they players found that they were bare, with no furniture. There was nothing to sit on, not a single table in the common area. The staff travelling with the team went out immediately and purchased stuff they needed from the local market. Once they had an estimate of how much they need to spend to buy all the essentials, Oltmans sent a Facebook message to Batra. The chief immediately approved the budget. The players were then photographed putting the stuff together in their rooms.
This incident may seem inconsequential, but it offers an insight into the kind of team and camp Oltmans is trying to build. The Indian men's team has now played three games in the Olympics and after what seems like ages, India can see a ray of hope in them.
Four years ago, the Indian men's hockey team was just short of a disaster in the London Olympics, finishing at the bottom of the pile. But that was a very different team, under a very different coach.
After the first two matches (and successive losses) in the Games, spirits started flagging. When I met a few players for a beer near the Village in London, I could sense that the predominant feeling was that of frustration.
Not only had the players lost faith in the system that held the reins to hockey in India, they were deeply disappointed in their own inability to perform well. A couple of players, both young and senior, said they were too embarrassed to even leave their rooms and socialise with the other athletes.
"We have not been able to work as a unit and live up to the great legacy of Indian hockey," said a (then) young defender who would later be nurtured into becoming one of India's best. "It's not just disappointing, but humiliating for us. Most of the boys are very down, many have lost the will to fight." It was not surprising in the least when the team lost the last-place classification game 3—2 to South Africa.
Considering the depths of despair they were languishing in, the team that has turned up in Rio is in stellar form and has undergone a visible transformation. Having spent more time with each other than with their own families, the players have bonded in a way that has turned them into one organism focused on performing well in the Olympics.
And the way they dealt with the dismal set-up in Rio was proof of that. Instead of lamenting the lack of facilities, they went ahead and decided to fix the problem at hand, together. The same attitude is also visible on the pitch.
The team's message is clear: If hockey has evolved into a very different game from when India last won an Olympics gold in 1980, the players are ready to adapt, learn new skills, and develop the mental strength to give a good fight and bounce back.
Playing against teams that have, for decades, been considered faster and stronger, the Indian men have worked on their physicality relentlessly. The results are self-evident. The opening win against Ireland, who pipped Pakistan to the Games, set the tone for the tournament. It was a hard-fought win and a rare opening triumph. Seeing the game through undoubtedly settled some of the butterflies.
In the next game, for 59 minutes and 57 seconds against the defending champions, Germany, India matched their European opponents in every department. In the second half they even dominated. More chances were created and the German goal was under constant threat. The goal that was conceded could not have been more tragic or deflating—a lucky deflection that lopped into the goal on the end of a hopeful ball with three seconds left to play. When the hooter sounded it felt like the end of another exercise in futility. Argentina was next and India seemed like it was already on the fast train back home. That the team had less than a day to recover from the physically devastating Germany game further multiplied the odds in favour of the South Americans.
And then something spectacular happened. I have no idea what Oltmans and captain PR Sreejesh said to the boys. That will remain a locket room secret. But India came out with a plan, and the plan was to win. The staff used the bench to great effect and SV Sunil led an exciting attacking line that was playing positive, European hockey with clinical efficiency. When the fourth quarter began, the butterflies returned for those of us watching from afar. Will they hold on? Or would the familiar story of "brave India go down fighting" play out all over again? In the end it was a defensive performance worth Sreejesh's weight in gold, with his kit on. In goal, the new captain was a revelation. In defence, VR Raghunath and Surender Kumar were fearless, yet composed. Sardar Singh was his usual, mercurial self and the boys from Manipur, Kothajit Singh and Chinglensana Singh, finished where the strikers could not.
It is early days in the Olympic men's hockey tournament. At 1830 IST tomorrow (Aug 11), India take on another strong European team. The Netherlands finished second in London and are among the most successful teams in recent history. Their nation is obsessed with hockey, with a proliferation of clubs and very close ties with the advanced training methods and practices employed by successful football clubs. But Oltmans knows all of that. Without a doubt he has been preparing his boys to do exactly what is needed to beat these great teams at the game they have come to dominate. And, for the first time in my life, he's got me dreaming.