India coach pins hopes on penalty corners
MUMBAI (Reuters) - The importance of penalty corner conversion is not lost on India men's hockey coach Michael Nobbs, who has put the onus on his strikers to earn enough of them in London to boost the former giants' faint hopes of an Olympic podium finish.
India, currently ranked number 10 in the world, are the most decorated men's hockey team in Olympic history but their fortunes have steadily dwindled since they won the last of their eight gold medals in 1980.
The team's lowest point came in Beijing four years ago when, for the first time in 80 years, they were forced to watch from home after failing to qualify for the Olympics.
Australian Nobbs, who took on the job in July last year, achieved his primary target of helping the team qualify for London where he believes India's campaign, like most other teams, will depend on penalty corners.
"We practice them a lot...penalty corners are critical for all teams as it's commonly known that penalty corners win games," the 58-year-old told Reuters in an interview.
Naturally, Sandeep Singh and V.R. Raghunath feature prominently in Nobbs' plans as the team's penalty corner experts.
Sandeep, a former India captain, is considered one of the best in the business, a reputation he underlined by firing 16 goals - including five in the final - during the team's unbeaten run in the qualifying tournament in February.
"The strike force is crucial as if they don't earn them (penalty corners) then we don't win games," Nobbs said.
India are grouped with Belgium, Germany, South Korea, Netherlands and New Zealand for the Games, which, according to Nobbs, was the toughest pool ripe for surprises.
"It will be a pool of upsets as all the teams in this pool are close," Nobbs said.
"We are as well prepared as we can be with the time we have had, but we will do our best and let's see."
Since taking over, Nobbs has tried to mould the team in to a more attacking unit, a tried and tested style that world champions Australia employ.
India played a series of matches in France and Spain in the lead-up to the Games. They beat France, but they struggled against Britain, Spain and South Africa.
Nobbs was pleased with the team's improvement.
"We want to play an attacking style that is ruthless and physical," he said.
"We still have a way to go to get to the same level as our European counterparts but we have made good progress."
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)