John Wright and Gary Kirsten had many things common. Both played cricket, represented their country, opened batting and coached India to World Cup finals. What they also did very smartly and effectively was never hogged the limelight from players and worked quietly in a corner. Their players-first approach helped Sourav Ganguly put fire in the belly of Indian cricketers, who MS Dhoni then turned fearless.
Wright and Kirsten’s comparison with India’s new hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne may appear cold at first, or too soon even with the slightest of semblance, but the Dutchman does remind of two great foreign coaches who took Indian cricket to dizzy heights.
Marijne, like Wright and Kirsten, emboldens his players by letting them take charge. Before pushback in the quarterfinal between India and Belgium on Friday, India’s Hockey World League Final journey in Bhubaneswar was like a raft in the throat of a rapid. More than the two defeats, exposed strategies and unconvincing reasons for defeats gave belief to doubts that it would be difficult to tame the raging Red Lions.
Belgium were unbeaten, and scoring. We were winless, and not scoring (enough).
But after 11 goals spread across four quarters, a penalty shootout and sudden death, Indians were leaping and Belgians weeping (almost).
However, unlike the fans at the Kalinga Stadium, Marijne isn't looking for any 10s from his players.
“Sevens are good,” he said on Thursday, 24 hours before India take on Olympic champions Argentina in the semifinal.
“By seven I mean on the scale of 1 to 10. You don’t have to play a 10. I want everybody playing for sevens, like yesterday (against Belgium). Then we can beat good teams,” Marijne said.
Comparisons with Wright and Kirsten begin here and become visible in Marijne’s next statement.
“After the match, Manpreet (Singh) sat with the team and said 'You can feel happy with the win but there is a match coming up'. I am happy that I don’t have to say that. It’s good that a player sets an example on how to approach the next match,” the 43-year-old, who guided India to Asia Cup win last month, said.
Like Kirsten, Marijne promotes building relationships and encourages players to spell their thoughts out, not be hesitant. Kirsten had a more mellowed captain in Dhoni to do that easily in comparison to Wright who had to give the aggressive Ganguly more space. And it worked, in both the partnerships.
On that note, interesting to recall Kirsten's words on relationships in an interview with ESPNcricinfo.
“Probably the most significant thing that has happened in my three years with the team has been the relationships that we built. And that takes time," Kirsten had said.
“Through those relationships, we were able to build trust within the environment. Once you have trust, then what happens is people take on responsibility. People need to trust that if they made errors, the environment would not come hard at them."
Marijne too doesn't come down hard on his players, even after defeats like the one against the Germans.
“We are a team, we play together and we fight together as a team on the pitch. Already for me the consistency is getting better. It’s good for India.
Rather he talked about the progress. Past is past.
“The difference (between our pool matches and the quarterfinal) was we created our chances and scored off our penalty corners. Against Germany we had same number of shots at goal and more PCs, also against England and Australia. But if you don’t score, things look bad,” said Marijne.
And then he mentioned the trust.
“They put up a standard. That’s a good thing. But the most important thing is they know how they did it. So we can do it tomorrow also (in the semis),” the coach added. “They know what success is.”
Comparisons with cricket in India, any sport on any front, seem implausible in the manner cricket built on its successes and grew to create demi-gods out of sportspersons.
Wright, who took India to 2003 World Cup final, and Kirsten, who guided India to 2011 World Cup win, made huge contributions.
In hockey, it’s difficult to stay quiet in the dugout. That’s where Marijne, for sure, would not be able to emulate Wright and Kirsten. But if his likeminded players-first approach can take Indian hockey to anywhere near what cricket achieved under the duo, adjectives will be hard to find.