(Photo: © FIH / Vino John)

Ric Charlesworth has rarely flirted with failure and when the legendary Australian coach travels with India to the WorldHockey Olympic qualifying tournament in Chile at the beginning of March he knows that the team’s adoring public will only accept one result – qualification.

By Cathy Harris

Rarely can the stakes have been higher for India. In the winner-takes-all event in Santiago the once mighty monarchs of the game need to triumph to book their place in Beijing.

Their history is breath-taking. They have not missed an Olympic Games since 1928 and between 1928 and 1964 they lost only one Olympic match as they captured seven gold medals and one silver. Of their eight gold medals, six were won consecutively, but since 1975 when they won the World Cup they have failed to qualify for the last four of a major tournament. No-one, it seems, was able to stop the slide.

Fast forward to December 2007 and Charlesworth, 55, is unveiled as the new technical advisor for the men and women. His brief: to put in place some effective long term structures. “It is” he admits, “the greatest challenge in the game and critical for the sport’s survival.” It is a challenge he believes he can succeed in adding: ”Yes, we can do it and I believe I can play a role as a catalyst...the players will be the ones who make it work.”

Charlesworth’s achievements in the game are well documented. From his impeccable academic background as a doctor to his sporting prowess as a batsman for Western Australia, a four-time Olympian, coach of the all conquering women’s Hockeyroos (back-to-back World Cup and Olympic gold medals) and a clutch of Champions  Trophy gold medals. Oh yes! He was also a Member of Parliament in Australia for 10 years.

If anyone can turn India’s fortunes round, Charlesworth can.

He has only been in India a few weeks but he has always admired India hockey. He said:”The fluency of the players, their quickness and creativity, their willingness to attack.” He will give advice to national coach Joaquim Carvalho if asked for it and says he has sought advice from two former India cricket coaches, the Australian Greg Chappell and John Wright from New Zealand about their experiences in India. ”I have contemporary experience in seeing what is necessary to win at the elite level” he added, but thinks few in India realise this at the moment.

Since arriving he has seen many of the hockey centres, observed the Premier Hockey League (PHL) and met many coaches. He is presently spending some time with the teams saying he is consolidating his views and that it is too early to talk about any achievements. India realise they need to change their coaching philosophy and that the players need to improve tactically and technically if they’re to return to the top six in the world. Charlesworth acknowledges this saying that he believes his appointment underlines a willingness to accept that.

We all know cricket is where the glamour and the money is in India but does Charlesworth think there is a Sourav Ganguly or Sachin Tendulkar lurking on hockey’s sidelines? “Cricket is number one but there is plenty of room for other sports to do well. People should remember that the job in cricket is easier. To be number one in hockey is much harder.”

Getting the balance right between training camps and internationals is crucial, and learning from results even more important. As part of their international build up to Chile, India are playing a five-match home series against European bronze medallists, Belgium, before going to Perth to add the final touches. Diwakar Ram, a promising young drag flicker and corner specialist has been included in India’s squad but two seasoned internationals Gagan Ajit Singh and Viren Rasquinha have announced their retirements.

Charlesworth has no doubt that the strongest threat to India’s dreams of Olympic qualification will come from Great Britain. English players form the core of the team and they all experienced a very successful 2006 World Cup campaign in Germany finishing 5th, while India stumbled in 11th. “But don’t discount the hosts, Chile, or Austria” he said. “One off games (in play-offs) can pose all sorts of problems – just look at Argentina (in the Pan-American Games when they lost to Canada) and Germany (beaten by Belgium in the bronze medal match for the 3rd Olympic spot at the European championship last year).”

One former colleague who has no doubt that Charlesworth is capable of  helping India regain it’s former glories is Tricia Heberle. A 1984 Olympian, Heberle worked closely alongside Charlesworth as a member of his staff during the Hockeyroos golden spell before taking up the post as head coach to the England and GB women’s squads.

Heberle said: One of his greatest strengths as a coach and leader of people is his commitment to quality preparation and embracing the many aspects that make up the daily training environment for an elite hockey athlete.  His ability to plan thoroughly (for the expected and unexpected), focus on the processes rather than the outcomes and his great attention to detail were critical to the success of the Hockeyroos.  Importantly, he was able to mastermind the creation of a culture where these things were instilled in and expected of every player and staff member.
“If anyone can have a positive short-term impact on Indian hockey, let alone develop a plan and build a foundation for the longer term development of the sport (and in particular the national team programmes), it will be Richard.  His ability to take on the hardest of challenges and to impact on people is amazing.  Whether you embrace or struggle with the guy, to have the opportunity to listen, watch, work round and learn from him, leaves you a better and more knowledgeable person”. 

Charlesworth was recently quoted as saying that as he wasn’t getting any younger he felt he still had a couple of big challenges left in him. They don’t come much bigger than this one.