Indian hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne is “very angry” with his players. He believes they had “lied to him” a few months back!
It was October 2017 and Marijne was just a few days into his job as India coach. India and Pakistan were set to clash in the Asia Cup group match at Dhaka and the Dutchman had asked his wards what it was like playing against their neighbours.
While coaches world over are well versed with this phenomenon, it was a new territory for Marijne having no experience of coaching an international senior side before.
“Business as usual,” said the Indian players and Marijne put in place a plan as India eyed the Asia Cup gold. But just a few minutes into the game and Marijne knew “this was something else”.
“I watched the first half and quickly realized they lied to me. They played totally different to normal,” Marijne said.
Normal isn’t a word one usually associates when it comes to India-Pakistan matches and Marijne will know it very well by now as the nations prepare to battle it out in one of the most sought-out matches at the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast on April 7, Saturday.
There is plenty at stake for both teams who come into this match having walked entirely different paths in recent history.
India have, without doubt, been the best team in Asia in the last two years and their triumph at the Asian Games in 2014 and the Asia Cup recently is proof enough. No team from Asia has been able to match them in terms of consistent results, with Pakistan being at the receiving end in the last seven matches.
India won all of them, including two commendable wins at the FIH Hockey World League last year in London, the victory margins being 7-1 and 6-1.
For Pakistan, it is an entirely different story. Once the heavyweights and the most feared team in world hockey, theirs has been a story of downfall and heartbreaks since 2014 when they missed out playing the World Cup for the first time. This followed their absence from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Now, they are in repair mode and turned to former coach Roelant Oltmans — the only coach in the history to have guided both India and Pakistan — who joined them on an SOS call last month.
At the Commonwealth Games, they are on a mission. The Green Shirts are determined to turn it around and want to begin it by doing well at the quadrennial Games. Pakistan played out a 1-1 draw against Wales in their opening match at the CWG on Thursday and are expected to go all out against India on Saturday.
There have been some tremendous battles between the two starting from their glory days at the Olympics. India defeated Pakistan to lift the gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne and 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, while Pakistan got the better of India in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
India’s 1975 World Cup win over Pakistan is one of their greatest sporting moment, while many consider India’s win in the 1982 Champions Trophy bronze medal match as one of the best matches in the history of the nation’s sporting rivalry.
Recent history also throws up some remarkable contests, with India’s dazzling 7-4 win in a group match of the 2003 Champions Trophy as an example of what these two nations can bring to the field.
The 2014 Asian Games at Incheon too brings to the fore the heart-rendering rivalry and raw passion that the players an fans share alike. India won 4-2 on penalties to win the Asian Games gold as Pakistan fought them tooth and nail, in what was a remarkable display of skills, talent and passion.
Marijne vs Oltmans
Much like the big battle that will unfold on the turf, there is an interesting sub-plot that is set to unravel when Oltmans and Marijne will take their places in the dugout on Saturday.
Oltmans, who coached India between 2013 and 2017, before losing his place to countryman Marijne will be keen to prove a point or two and this sub-plot makes for an interesting scenario.
Marijne too will be keen to show his tactics and guide the team on his first major assignment in what is considered one of the toughest jobs in world hockey. It will be interesting to see how the two marshall their troops as the world of hockey comes together for the most-awaited battle of it all, at the Gold Coast Hockey centre on Saturday afternoon.
Gear up… it doesn’t get bigger than this.