The Indian men’s hockey team entered Asian Games as overwhelming favourites for gold, and they completed the job with just a brief hiccup in the semifinals. For coach Craig Fulton, the priority was to establish his team as the best in Asia. He did not have much time to do it, but the plans came together since he took over in May.
“I think I am proud more than anything,” the South African tells this newspaper. “It’s been under 5 months really and a lot has happened in that time, first with getting to know the squad, then two rounds of Pro League, then Spain, then Asian Champions Trophy. It’s been tough. The boys have pushed really hard. And I think if you look back at all the results, it’s shown consistency that we are proud of.”
One of the first things that Fulton did was bring in his compatriot Paddy Upton on board as the mental coach of the team. For followers of Indian sport, Upton is a familiar name. He has been associated with the 2011 World Cup-winning cricket team under MS Dhoni, and as part of the Indian Premier League set-up too.
“It helped the players for sure,” Fulton says. “But it also helps the staff and it helps me too. It’s just an opening for everyone to discuss if there have been any challenges on field or off-field, and then a way of dealing with it as a team. A new Indian way, that’s what we are after. I think this is a good platform. It’s good to get an Asian Games gold under the belt, with new staff. I think we’ve got a good rhythm and then with Paddy, it’s just good to have that experience there as well. From a totally different perspective, as he doesn’t know the sport. That’s also a really good thing, he just calls it as he sees it.”
That sort of mental fortitude isn’t exactly summoned when India dominated the group stages. But on the day of the semifinals, they needed every ounce of it. Having started the match on fire, with a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, Korea bounced back strongly. Almost as if they had nothing to lose, they put India under pressure constantly. And it took a splendid Abhishek goal in the final quarter to give Fulton’s men the cushion.
If South Korea pushed India to the brink, the final was a dream scenario for Fulton as a coach as he saw his team dominate from start to finish. It is in this contrasting nature of pulling off wins in big matches, that Fulton sees positive signs.
“If you judge it by tournament hockey, then the big moments are in the semifinals and finals,” Fulton says. “What happened in the semifinal in ACT, was we did well against Japan and then in the final we have to come back from two goals down. Then you look at semifinal of Asian Games we played a really strong Korea, and they played really well, we did well to beat them the way we did. And then the final, is a big match, and we played really well. Everything that I’ve said that we tried to do, I think we are showing slowly starting to happen.”
Fulton is fully aware that things are not perfect yet, but in the short span of time he has been in charge, he has delivered on his first set of targets. Now the attention turns to Paris.