I openly admit to being a 'hockey tragic', having played the game myself for many years in my youth and written books and newspaper columns about the topic. In this column a few weeks ago, I predicted India's resurgence as a world hockey force.
The word was out that this Indian hockey team was on par with the giants of European hockey, the Germans, the Dutch, England and Spain; and I note that England is the current European Championship title-holder.
So it was with some anticipation at this Commonwealth Games, that this fresh Indian outfit would put-to-the-field; and they did not disappoint. In their two major pool round matches, this Indian team defeated Pakistan, their arch rivals 7-4; lost to Australia 5-2; then in the semi-final, beat England on a penalty shoot out.
This therefore left an Australia vs India Commonwealth Games final. There was much excitement as Indian had found themselves a European-style hockey star in the penalty corner arena, Sundeep Singh. This fellow was banging penalty corners into the goal as quickly as their opponents were taking 'drinks' in the 40c degree New Delhi heat.
In that Final, India had everything going for them. The stadium was full to capacity with a 17,000 person home crowd. Sundeep Singh was in great form. They boasted a new look Indian hockey team, anticipating a resurgence of a past era. The lads were brimming with confidence. The press was wild with the glorious days of Indian hockey, their national sport.
Yet, when it came down to it, methodically, analytically, clinically, deliberately, the Kookaburras took this Indian side apart, piece by piece, pass by pass, pre-plan by pre-plan; scoring four goals in each half to come away 8-0 winners. This score was previously unheard of in an international hockey 'Final'.
I hope I have given you enough background to see why Ric Charlesworth, the Kookaburra coach, is being hailed by one and all.
Ric Charlesworth, a medical doctor from Western Australia, has been a hockey player of note. I was right there in London in 1986 when he (Australia) won the World Cup Gold medal, but he missed out on an Olympic Gold a number of times although they 'probably would have' won it in the 1980 Moscow Olympics when the hockey team boycotted. He went into Federal politics after that Moscow 'hockey political' debacle and one of his stated reasons was to help prevent such sporting national humiliation in the future.
He turned his skills to coaching the Hockeyroos (The women's national hockey team), helping them to win an abundance of Olympic Gold Medals. He said at that time that he would not coach the men, as men hockey players won't do as they are told. Top men hockey players it seemed had their own ideas. How strange was that?
Ric Charlesworth then offered his coaching skills in a variety of sports in and out of Australia, but always in behind the scenes roles so as to better equip athletes. He then returned to hockey in 2005 for a short stint in a similar 'behind the scenes' capacity with the Indian hockey team, but after only a few short months he found that the administrators proved too difficult for his style of management. The experience of Greg Chappell in Indian cricket was similar!
On his return to Australia, the door opened for when Barry Dancer retired as coach of the Kookaburras. After much speculation around hockey circles, Ric Charlesworth eventually took the post and has moulded the team into his own likeness.
He himself, we're told, walks 15 kilometres a day (which helps to clear his head) and is a proven technical whiz when to comes to analysing what is actually happening on and off the pitch.
Ric Charlesworth has brought many innovations to this Kookaburra team. The first and most obvious (that commentators have noted) is how his attacking players constantly chase the 'ball carrier'; and often gain possession of the ball by doing so.
The recent successful European strategy has been that of 'ball retention', where players pass the ball back, and back, across and across, preventing the opposition from touching it. It seems pointless for the other team's attackers to chase the ball-carriers playing in this way, as the ball is fast-tracked across the hockey field from one defender to another.
Ric Charlesworth's new policy has changed all that. His instruction is to never let the defender with the ball any peace whatsoever. Kookaburra players are constantly chipping at the defence - a bit like a woodpecker on a tree – and it rattles the opposition.
It creates confusion, panic and disorientation. We saw this time and time again in India, when the Kookaburras snatched the ball away through this highly technical and demanding mechanism, involving a very high level of physical fitness. Either the defenders mucked it up themselves in confusion, or they had the ball snatched away from them.
To achieve this result, the chasers need to be replaced by 'subs' on strict rotation. This achieves two things; one is that fresh legs are always chasing the 'ball carrier', and the other is that the defenders have a constant stream of different people pin-pricking them which in turn provides a huge psychological advantage to the attackers, as the defenders never get to know how their opposite-number reacts.
Charlesworth has changed hockey forever!
But Ric Charlesworth has not changed. When he played Sheffield Shield Cricket for Western Australia, he was nick-named 'Grumpy' because of his self-depreciating attitude at the pitch when batting. Nothing was ever 'good enough'. Similarly, he is rarely happy even with a Kookaburra 'top' performance. Just ask the players! But they now acknowledge his coaching skills with undying respect!
Under Charlesworth the Kookaburras have won the 2009 Champions Trophy, the 2010 World Cup, the 2010 Champions Trophy and the Commonwealth Games – the first time all these three have ever been won by the same team in the one year.
By public acclaim, the players, the commentators (including myself) have branded Ric Charlesworth Australia's greatest ever coach (of all sports). This is no small call in any one's sporting language.