He was a delight on the hockey field. As an inside-forward, Terry Walsh could make a mockery of the best of defenders, his versatility leaving the opposition in a trance. He was part of the golden era of Australian hockey and was acknowledged as one of the greats of the game for his technical excellence. It is hardly surprising that Walsh is currently ranked among the most sought-after coaches in the world of hockey.
His coaching assignments have taken him to Malaysia, Spain, Australia, The Netherlands, United States of America and now India. 'I have done a variety of coaching assignments, some with top teams and some struggling. But I am excited to be with the Indians. The talent here is huge,' Walsh says with conviction as we meet for lunch at The Café, an all-day dining restaurant at Hyatt Regency.
Walsh walks in with the punctuality that marks a successful sportsman’s career. With the great Ric Charlesworth for company, Walsh was a terror on the field, scything his way past defenders with a dazzling mix of finesse and speed. 'I was lucky enough to be in a group that brought about a change. We actually brought India down (in 1976). That was the start of our rise,' he remembers.
A gruelling training session has left Walsh exhausted. Food is top priority and he fills his plate with an assortment of salads — bell pepper, green tomato, Greek and squid ring and some bacon. 'I must say the potential in India is amazing but the structure and the organisation are quite poor. It needs direction. Not an easy solution. It is all about education process, educating coaches and understanding what the modern game is about and how to retain the flavour of the traditional artistic flair of Indian hockey. I am finding myself teaching your national players the skills that I actually learnt from the Indians,' he says, with the salad disappearing fast.
Hockey was a fascinating spectacle in the ’70s and ’80s before power play took away the artistry. Today, the game is struggling to cope with the rest. Is hockey dying? 'It can either grow incredibly or it can gradually die. In the last ten or 15 years it is perpetually dying because it is very difficult to keep up the sport financially. One of the problems with hockey is that the content of the game is not of Indian delight. It is not creative. That is one ingredient of the game I would like to retain. When I started playing the Indian-Pakistani dominance in the sport was at its highest. We always felt that they were almost untouchable from the point of view of their level.'
Downing a glass of watermelon juice, Walsh, who hails from Perth, prepares for the main course. He is impressed with the tandoori delights. Chicken tikka is his pick. Some paneer tikka too. 'I love the tandoori stuff,' he mumbles.
Indian hockey had always captured Walsh’s attention and he is concerned at the changes seen of late. 'The Indians, historically, were such wristy and creative style of players. They have become, not boring, but become like the game, without the wristy play, without the flair, not good in the areas that don’t suit the Europeans. To beat the Europeans we need to have something they are not used to, the agility of the Indians is the greatest asset they have. We are trying to get them to a fitness level and bring some traditional skills back into the game, look to get results that can take Indian hockey forward. It would be nice to get the Indian dominance back, to get the artistic and skilful play. So that people begin to play the Indian way!'
The ambience at The Café is warm and contemporary and the food is authentic. Walsh obviously enjoys the afternoon. Some more watermelon juice is ordered. On the team he is handling, the affable Aussie notes, 'The boys are very receptive and disciplined. What they lack is trust in the people who are in authority. These guys are fantastic, incredibly good. I encourage them to ask questions and not indulge in hierarchical structure that does not allow them to question. In the end someone has to make a call. It can be a player, it can be a coach. Everyone is equal. Simple!'
Any suggestions to help hockey regain its status in India? 'You have to find a way to get the public to the venue, allow the financial flows, and make the players household names. Unless you are going to do that it doesn’t matter what rules and what concept you introduce. Look at football. People know who the top football players are in the world. But not in hockey! If you talk about Sardar (Singh) in England, only those intimately involved in the game would know him. In India, a lot of people know Sardar but not everyone. No comparison with cricketers. Look at Yuvraj. The Yuvraj in cricket and the Yuvraj in hockey.'
The plates have been cleared and we wait for coffee. Walsh makes a parting observation, 'India is hugely important to world hockey. The potential for India in hockey is understood by FIH (the world body). It puts India in the top nations in hockey. I would like to see skills more than power and that is where India can contribute.' Hockey fans in India hope the Australian master will bring about the change.