New Delhi: Two months after an emotional return to the Olympics, the Indian men's hockey team will assess its preparation for the Games against the World Champions Australia, world No. 2 Germany and hosts Great Britain in a four-nation Olympic test event in London from May 2 to 6.
While the opposition sounds like a headmaster checking India's improvement, the eight-time Olympic gold medallists will step on the blue pitch, specially laid for the Olympics, for the first time. And for coach Michael Nobbs, the combination is a "tough proposition."
With less than a year in office, the Australian has been instrumental in bringing the cheer back in Indian hockey. Talking to IBNLive.com from London, here's what Nobbs had to say about India's preparation for the Games, the blue pitch, and his expectation from the boys before the first match against Australia on Wednesday at the picturesque Riverbank Arena.
What's your expectation from this Olympic test event?
We will be using this as our first outing on the blue turf. I had heard from friends in Australia that it takes some time to get used to the turf and it concerned me. I should have realised, since Australia got a [blue] pitch laid down early and have had six months on it, that something was happening. Unfortunately, we had the qualifiers and had to play on the green Delhi pitch [at the Major Dhyanchand National Stadium], which was fine. The pitch that was being laid down in Ludhiana was not ready, but it's close now. This was going to be a problem, but as it is a test event and at the Olympic venue, we could use this as our first step in getting used to it [blue pitch].
Secondly, we get to play against three of the top teams in the world. This [playing the top teams] we need to do desperately if we are to improve. It's no use playing against the teams at our level. We need to play against the best. Unfortunately, it comes with some pain as we are physically not as good as they are, yet. The practice game yesterday [Monday] was an example of this. It [the blue pitch] is slippery, very slow and bouncy due to the turf pile as it's so new. It needs more time playing on it, so [that] it settles down and us as well. However, we then got to play Australia [in the practice match], the top team in the world, and they played all 24 of their squad against our 18. We played a longer match than normal [as well]. Tough, but that's what we need right now. The team understands this. This is what we need to go through to get better.
What about some of the chat going about India not being happy with the pitch?
Not so much unhappy, but just not enough time to get used to it and then [to] play the best teams in the world... Tough proposition!
What's the outlook India's opponents have about Indian hockey's improved performance of late?
They can see we have improved a lot, but physically we are still not in the same sandbox as these teams. The Aussies are very physical in their tackles, something we haven't experienced for a while. They get away with tackles we were getting pulled up for in the qualifiers and sent off in South Africa. This is something we need to learn and get better and change some of our training to replicate this.
You had said after the qualifiers in February that expecting medals will be harsh. Has your opinion changed in the past two months?
I still think our goal of getting into the top six is what we should aim for, and anything else is a bonus.
How have Indians living in London and the UK press received India's re-entry into the Olympics? What did they ask or tell you?
They love it. I think more than 50 per cent of the crowd coming to these matches [in the four-nation test event] will be Indian, and their support will be great.