HockeySports

Picking a hockey team in Covid times

Graham Reid is obsessed with the small details.

Once, before the Rio Olympics, he made Australia’s hockey players sit in a bus for 45 minutes. Why? “We’ve seen in previous campaigns, when you get your bus to go from the airport to the village, or from the village to a venue, it will get lost,” Reid, who was Australia’s coach in Rio, says. “So we were just mimicking the scenario.”

With just a few weeks to go for the Tokyo Olympics, Reid, now the coach of the Indian team, has bigger things to worry about than the bus losing its dedicated lane – he first has to pick the players who will be on that bus. That process started on Thursday. The hockey team marked the 50-day countdown by kicking off a six-match intra-squad series, which will decide the 16-member team for the Olympics.

It might not be the ideal way to select the squad, especially when India’s opponents are getting to play some high-level international games. Last week, Australia and New Zealand played a four-match bilateral series – their first assignment in more than a year – which served as a selection trial for players from the two countries. Starting Friday, the five European teams that have qualified for the Games – the Netherlands, Britain, Belgium, Spain and Germany – will compete in their continental championship, putting them in the perfect zone before the Olympics.

The Indian team does not have this luxury even though Hockey India tried to arrange tours. The travel restrictions imposed on travellers from the country following the second wave mean the Indian team has been stuck inside the Sports Authority of India’s Bengaluru Centre. So, Reid has had to improvise.

The 33 probables have been divided into two teams that will play three sets of two matches each in 12 days. After one set, the teams will be shuffled so the coaching staff can try different combinations. Indeed, the core of the Indian team selects itself but the battle is intense for a few spots, especially in the attacking department.

“These are not practice games, they’re not muck-around games,” Reid says. “These are full-on, you need to show everything you’ve got because that’s how you also make sure that we are ready to perform at that (Olympics) level.”

After the last match will be played on June 14, Reid will have the unenviable task of breaking the news to half of the probables that they haven’t made the cut. The mood is ‘tense’, Reid says, which might be normal in an Olympic year but stressful nevertheless. “You have pressure, it’s a very stressful period for the athletes and coaches as well. It’s people’s lives that you are dealing with, and dreams and visions… people have dreamt of going to the Olympics since they were five years old. So it’s quite a stressful time,” Reid says.

Within the limitations, Reid is trying to simulate the conditions India could encounter in Tokyo, starting with the weather. The six matches will be played according to the timing of India’s games at the Olympics and with the weather expected to be hot and humid during the Games, some will be held in the afternoons.

Reid isn’t concerned about the fitness levels of the team – ‘really, really fit’, he insists – but since India plays a high-speed, quick-passing style of hockey, the ability to handle the heat is something the coach is keeping one eye on. “Togetherness is a really important thing too in my team,” he says.

Covid calculations, too, have to be made. With the International Olympic Committee yet to define clearly the Covid protocols for team sports, there is a lot of ambiguity as to what happens if one member of the team gets infected.

Thierry Weil, the chief executive of the International Hockey Federation, says the IOC is ‘still consulting’ but one thing is sure, the matches won’t be rescheduled. “The player who tests positive will be quarantined and close contacts will be tested. But for team sports, it’s not completely finalised yet. Will the entire team not play? IOC is still consulting with all the different team sports,” Weil says.

In absence of well-established rules, Reid says it will be paramount to have ‘flexibility within the group.’ “If you have a defender that gets injured or something, then you’ve got someone who can play in defence, but also in the midfield, also a striker. So you need that sort of flexibility,” he says.

These rules will have an impact beyond mere team combinations. Since close contacts will also be monitored, the team management will have to carefully choose room partners at the Olympic village. “We are waiting to hear the full details and actual implications about what happens if someone gets positive because some of the early discussions that came out were more based around individual athletes and not teams,” Reid says. “That’s going to be coming out in the next week or so. And once we know a bit more that we’ll be able to plan room configurations and other things.”

In his obsessive pursuit of details, Reid is relaxed about one thing: the movement restrictions imposed on athletes during the Olympics. The athletes will be tested every day, have been advised to socialise less, travel only from the village to the venue and eat their meals quickly, and in small groups.

“Funnily enough, we have been living like this for some time,” Reid says. “So while we are mimicking all scenarios on the pitch, we are pretty much used to the protocols off it.”

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