Current hockey team is best to leave the shores of India: Somaya

By Arun Lakshman

MM Somaya or Maneyapanda Muthanna Somaya, the 62-year-old Arjuna award-winning hockey player, was the former captain of the Indian hockey team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. 1980 Moscow Olympics under Captain V. Bhaskaran.

A former employee of Bharat Petroleum, Somaya comes from Coorg in Karnataka and lives in Mumbai. One of the most decorated right-wingers the country has ever produced, the former captain who spoke to IANS about the possibility of the current Indian team at the Olympics in Tokyo and a wide range of topics related to hockey in particular and sports in general.

Excerpts from the interview.

Question: The Indian hockey team is playing in the Olympics in Tokyo. As a former international, how do you rate the team?

A: The Olympic team in Tokyo is one of the most talented to leave our shores. This allows them to play high intensity hockey throughout the duration of a match.

Moreover, they are more conscious tactical than previous teams. In particular, the ‘rolling substitution rule’ is being put to good use by the team, and this should enable them to maintain a blistering pace right through the tournament.

Also mentally, the team seems more composed and has conquered fear of playing higher ranked teams.

The team has beaten the best in the FIH PRO League and other matches the last 2-3 years. They will therefore enter the Olympics with a lot of positive energy. They justify more than their 4th place at the FIH ranking.

Question: You were part of the Indian team that won gold at the Olympics in Moscow. Please tell, whats the story of them big puppys …..

A: I made my international debut directly at the Olympics in Moscow. It was my first trip out of India and it was the first time I saw polygrass which was the artificial surface used in the 1980 Olympics. India did not have an artificial surface back then. I also saw a European for the first time on a hockey rink and was amazed at their fitness and size!

‘Adapt’ became the buzzword for me.

I was lucky that I had a great coach in Balkrishen Singh and captain in Bhaskaran who guided me and made sure that Moscow games were memorable on and off the field. The American led the boycott of the games so that hockey had an exhausted field. So winning gold with a young team was extremely satisfying, but did not fill us with euphoria.

Question: You participated in 1980 Moscow, 1984 in Los Angeles and were captain of Team India in 1988, Olympics in Seoul. Tell us the memories?

A: The three Olympics were memorable for various reasons. In Moscow, the gold medal team won coming on the victory podium for the award ceremony. This was a childhood dream and so very special.

In Los Angeles, we probably had the best team India has ever had since the introduction of astroturf. We played great hockey, but lost a semifinal spot on an inferior goal difference. Being on that team with skipper Zafar Iqbal, Mohd Shahid, Mervyn Fernandis, Joaquim Carvalho and Marcellus Gomes was truly an honor.

In Seoul, I had the opportunity to captain the team, which was another highlight of my career. Creating game plans with the team and watching them play in matches was incredibly satisfying. Here, too, we were beaten to a semifinal place, but finished in the top six.

Hard to believe that this sixth position has not yet been matched by Indian teams during the seven subsequent Olympic Games.

Question: Has Covid influenced the performance of the Indian hockey team?

A: There were a couple of players who had tested positive last year, but who have fully recovered. The team’s preparation got a bit of a setback as the last couple of PRO League matches had to be canceled due to COVID. However, the coaches have made sure that high-intensity matches were played in the training camp between the team and others likely at the training camp in Bangalore.

In fact, COVID could be an important factor during the Games. Any deviation in protocol or laxity can result in players and entire teams losing. I am sure the Indian team like others has trained adequately for this extraordinary situation.

Question: India and Pakistan were two countries that were dependent on dribbling. Has the change in the style of play affected the performance of the Indian team?

Answer: Dribbling and other intricate stick skills were effective during the period when hockey was played on the grass. Both India and Pakistan have changed their style of play to suit the tough demands of modern hockey artificial turf. India seems to have progressed over the last 10-12 years. Scientific training has improved the physical condition of the players. So they have been able to adapt better to the groundbreaking pace of today’s match. Teamwork finally takes precedence over individualistic play. The more robust stick skills like slap shot, tomahawk reverse and drag flick are now strong weapons in the Indian arsenal. The shift from playing artistic hockey to playing effective hockey has worked well for India.

Question: What do you think are the biggest differences you find in hockey during your playing days and at the moment?

Question: Hockey has had a major makeover due to many rule changes. The abolition of ‘offside’ has completely transformed the game. Artistic build-up with short passes has given way to the frequent long lift into the striking circle in search of poaching ahead. The change of the ‘turning’ rule has made it difficult for defenders, as an attacker can now shield the ball with his body and then drive in any direction. And the latest rule of “rolling replacement” has seen the game play at an explosive pace. So tactics have changed to suit these rules. Field hockey has certainly undergone a major transformation over the last three decades.

Question: What are the biggest strengths of this Indian team?

A: This Indian team fears no one. Victories against Australia, Belgium, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands over the last 1-2 years have added a lot of confidence. Internationally acclaimed coaches such as Rolent Oltmans, Terry Walsh and current incumbent Graham Reid have heralded a more flexible game system. In defense, the team maintains excellent form right through a game. There is better structure in building attacks deep inside their own territory. The transition from defense to attack and vice versa is happening fast. Drag flicks from penalty corners are more uniform. But for me, the shift from games centered around one or two players to now being shared between all outfield players is most encouraging. I have always believed that individual play wins matches, while team play wins tournaments.

Question: Has Cricket overshadowed national sports hockey. How do you rate junior tournaments in the country, I mean school and college level?

Answer: All sports have their own strengths and appeal. In my opinion, the commercial and marketing success of the sport is not the only indicators of whether a sport is doing well. Hockey is a truly global sport with more than 100 countries playing competitively. The insane pace and the specialized skills have made it more challenging and stretch the limits of endurance. There has never been a stain on match-fixing or substance abuse in hockey. Hockey has done well to maintain its status as an Olympic discipline. However, efforts should be made to improve the visual appeal to keep the knobs ticking and to the benefit of the TV viewer.

The junior tournaments in India have got a shot in the arm at the introduction of the inter-academy tournament. Hopefully this will be the platform for juniors to showcase their talent. Privately run academies and government-run sports hostels are throwing up some fine talent. Punjab, Odisha and Haryana have emerged as major hockey hubs. UP, MP and Karnataka show signs of revival in terms of talent identification and care. A National Hockey Academy in Delhi has also been set up. More advanced and scientific training in these academies and sports hostels will expand the talent pool. Khelo India has U17 and U21 tournaments for the top state teams. These and other junior tournaments need special attention from selection committees to identify potential champions.

Question: You would have interacted with several athletes during your Olympic tournaments. Can you explain?

A: I have seen many sports superstars up close in the Olympic villages. Sprinter Carl Lewis, Tennis stars Stefan Edberg, Steffi Graf and Gabriella Sabatini and gymnast Nadia Comaneci were a few of them that we would often see. I preferred not to meet any of these stars as everyone in the village was focused on their respective events and wanted their own space in the intervening period. Being in the same village as these superstars and watching them carry themselves with balance and dignity was in itself inspiring to me. It was fun to meet Vijay Amritraj at the Olympics in 1988. We lived in the same building and went to the stadium with his brother Anand to see him play Henri Leconte. He also used to come to our hockey games. He had international popularity and was a great ambassador for sports.


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