Michael Nobbs: Effective social distancing has helped Australia limit the fatalities

WION Web Team
New Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Digvijay Singh DeoUpdated: Jun 08, 2020, 04:45 PM IST


Story highlights

Former coach of the Indian hockey team, who was also a member of Australia hockey team at the 1984 Olympics, Michael Nobbs, in an exclusive conversation with WION's Sports Editor Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about a lot of things ranging from life in lockdown in Sydney, how Australia can resume sports, matches behind closed doors, Tokyo Olympics, Indian hockey team and its medal prospects at the Games, and much more.

Former coach of the Indian hockey team, who was also a member of Australia hockey team at the 1984 Olympics, Michael Nobbs, in an exclusive conversation with WION's Sports Editor Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about a lot of things ranging from life in lockdown in Sydney, how Australia can resume sports, matches behind closed doors, Tokyo Olympics, Indian hockey team and its medal prospects at the Games, and much more.

Digvijay Singh Deo: The man I am speaking to can be introduced in many ways, as a hockey olympian, a former coach of the Indian hockey team, husband of an Olympic gold medalist and father of a soon to be Olympian. Those are many hats you wear Michael Nobbs but importantly all of them are related to hockey…

Michael Nobbs: Yes, it's the game I love. In fact, it's the game that we all love.

DSD: How are you Michael, good to know that the lockdown has been gradually eased in Sydney.

Michael Nobbs: It was tough initially because everyone was scared and had no idea how to deal with such an unprecedented crisis. But gradually we learnt how to cope with it and now we see that things are opening up. The great thing is that we here in Australia are approaching stage two of the three-step reopening plan of the government. This means we can have ten people at gatherings, go out and exercise and return to a somewhat normal life.

DSD: I am told that you Michael have been starting hockey coaching again with kids, you haven’t waited long have you.

Michael Nobbs: I love coaching children, it reminds me of why I fell in love with the game. This is such a great time to play the game because normally we are always preparing for some tournament or practising with some strategies in mind, but during this period we can just play for the love of the game. It's a unique opportunity to have fun.

DSD: How have you managed Michael, you are generally any outdoor person and can't imagine you cooped up all alone in your place in Sydney...

Michael Nobbs: I didn't cope with it well to be completely honest. Fortunately, I was able to keep in touch with my friends from all around the world through social media. I kept looking ahead and planning for what I would do when the lockdown measures are relaxed and luckily that time is already here. So I'm just delighted that I can be outdoors again.

DSD: Each country has dealt with the pandemic in different ways and in Australia, each state or province too has had different ways of tackling the virus. But the fact that the death toll has been kept near the hundred marks is exemplary work by the health services.

Michael Nobbs: Yes, the people in Australia have followed all the coronavirus guidelines of the government, including practising social distancing. People in Australia have been very careful in ensuring that the disease does not spread rapidly. The health authorities have also been very proactive and the containment measures have been very effective. There is a phone app as well which will be available soon which will allow people to stay away from danger zones.

DSD: How soon do you think Australia will return to normalcy, given that there hasn't been a stark rise in the number of cases in the past few weeks.

Michael Nobbs: I don't think things will get back to normal for a long time, till there's a vaccine available. I think domestic competitions in Australia will start to get underway in July. However, in terms of international competitions, I don't see the travel restrictions being lifted which means we won't see any action this year.

DSD: Lots of debate in the world of cricket about the T20 World Cup in Australia. Do you think that event can go off without a hitch or they will have to play without spectators?

Michael Nobbs: I think the T20 World Cup will go ahead, but we have to ensure that everyone involved in the competition is virus-free. So the necessary tests have to take place. Right now, there aren't a lot of cases in Australia, but it just takes the one person to cause an outbreak. I think by the time the competition comes around in October, I hope will be able to hold matches with spectators.

DSD: Maybe we won't have a full MCG people will be scattered all over the stadium.

Michael Nobbs: Yes I think that is a possibility. We can have a distance between two families in the stadium, which means a stadium like the MCG would have about 30 to 40,000 spectators. That is enough to create an atmosphere. People will have to obey social distancing rules.

DSD: World sport has been tossed around violently by this pandemic but signs that sport is leading the fightback saying we won't be cowed down. Bundesliga starts behind closed doors on 16th May.could be a significant moment, if they go off without a hitch you could see a domino effect.

Michael Nobbs: I think the German Bundesliga is a very good test case for the world. It gives us an idea of the pros and cons of starting a major sporting competition. I think after 2-3 weeks of the Bundesliga, we will see other sports and competitions base their decisions on how the league is functioning in Germany.

DSD: Should sport resume behind closed doors. Some argue that the people need the distraction, sceptics say this is all about the money stuck in broadcast rights, the purists say how can you play team sport without the atmosphere

Michael Nobbs: Everyone loves a large crowd, there is no doubt about that. But when we were kids we used to play for the sheer love of the game, with absolutely no one watching. I realise there is a lot of money in sport, it is a huge business. The atmospherics are also a major part of top-level sport, so it does feel strange to play without spectators.

DSD: How has Australian sport coped through all of this?

Michael Nobbs: All sports are bleeding money at this point. Every domestic club relies on weekly action to sustain the salary of the employees, whether it be the players or the non-playing staff. It is going to be a tough road back for all these teams. We cannot have a full season because then one sport will overlap with the season of the other. Every sport is trying to figure out a way to survive.

DSD: In fact, if we go back to march the Australian Olympic Committee sort of put pressure on the IOC saying it would not send a team to the 2020 Olympics..that was a pretty brave call when the Olympic Committee has an IOC vice president in it.

Michael Nobbs: It is the ultimate goal of an athlete to compete at the Olympic games. Athletes, especially in individual sports, plan their preparation for four years in a way that they peak during this event, so it is very tough on them to postpone the games. But I don't think the IOC had any other choice. The health and safety of society have to be the top priority, and the postponement decision was taken keeping that in mind.

DSD: Now Michael Nobbs daughter Kaitlin was set to follow in the footsteps of her father and mother and become an olympian. Personally, how disappointing was it for the family?

Michael Nobbs: It was disappointing for us, but I was telling my daughter the other day that she is just 22 and there are bound to be more opportunities for her to compete at the Olympics if she keeps working hard. She was voted the  Australian player of the year in 2019, so there's a good chance she retains her place in the squad. I'm pretty confident she will do well since she has got some of my genes.

DSD: I remember her from the time you were out coaching here Michael, that shy young girl has now become the 2019 Australian player of the year. What a dramatic evolution.

Michael Nobbs: We're really proud of her, not just of what she has achieved as a hockey player, but the way she conducts herself off the pitch. When you have a daughter, they tend to be like their mothers, very strong-willed. So it was tough at times when she was growing up, but I could not be more proud of the person she has become. I can't wait to see what she does in the future.

DSD: I don’t want to play spoilsport here Michael but question marks remain over the Tokyo games. How does that uncertainty affect probable first-time Olympians like your daughter?

Michael Nobbs: Kaitlin is also doing a nursing degree while pursuing her hockey career, so she is keeping herself busy. The dates of the Olympic games are out of her control, so there's no point dwelling on that. She loves to play the game and today she was trying to find a hockey field in her neighbourhood to just hit a few balls around. That just shows you the passion she has for the sport. She understands that she can only work on herself and the Olympics are out of her control.

DSD: Australia is a powerhouse when it comes to the much does an athlete risk currently in this climate, let's take three, swimming and athletics.not possible to follow social distancing in these sports so what is the option.

Michael Nobbs: I think training has already started in groups of ten in some sports while practising social distancing. I think it all comes down to the frequency of testing and the number of tests we can conduct in a short span of time. If you can test 40-50 people in about 3 or 4 hours, then those people can be deemed safe to participate in a particular event and it can go ahead. I realise the logistics of this can be a bit of a problem, but I don't see many other alternatives. Testing is essential for us to return to the sport in a safe environment.

DSD: As it stands most of the people I have spoken to admit that the 2020 international season is a write-off. We don’t know if we have a vaccine by the end of the year so you are probably looking at not a lot of competition before the 2021 games. Will that throw up a very very different Olympic podium from the ones we were expecting.

Michael Nobbs: It's definitely going to be interesting. If you can't have international competitions, it makes the Olympics less competitive. You need to be able to constantly be competing against good teams to be in the best shape possible for the Olympics, and I don't think that will be possible. So I agree, I think the 2021 games will be unpredictable. I already think there won't be any international competitions taking place in 2020. A competition like the pro league struggles for money during the best of times and now without any crowds or restart date in sight, there could be real problems for the FIH. I know a lot of teams were relying on the Pro League for their Olympic preparation so I don't know how teams will now play against international teams ahead of the Olympics.

DSD: How will hockey react to this period of no training. You had a nice and explosive start to the Olympic year with the Pro League matches. The momentum is gone now and probably peak fitness. You can't train in gyms and build up match fitness, can you?

Michael Nobbs: I think it's going to take six-nine months. It's going to be a huge task to get teams back to match fitness from this point. I don't think there is much money as well with the sporting authorities to conduct competitions because all the economies have tanked. It's going to be enormously difficult with the travel restrictions to hold international matches and I'm not sure how teams will prepare.

DSD: Considering the travel restrictions and quarantine measures in place, will the European teams have a slight advantage considering they can probably play against each other by September or October considering how easy it is to travel inside the eurozone.

Michael Nobbs: Yes I feel the Europeans will have a huge advantage. Us Australians have to travel to India to have high-level competition, which is obviously not possible at this point. We do have the possibility of playing New Zealand, but that will also become pointless after a few matches. The top 3-4 European teams can compete with each other regularly and it will certainly be a boon for them ahead of the Olympics. However, I still feel the Australian team will be well prepared for the games given the quality of the team.

DSD: How badly do you think has this postponement hit India. Lots of people were putting them down as medal contenders after a bright start to the Pro League.

Michael Nobbs: I think the team that we see now is a result of the programme that dr Narinder Batra put in place ten years ago. I remember when I was the coach of the Indian team, I felt that because of the system that was put in place, the team would be ready to compete for a medal at the 2020 Olympics. That's exactly how it has turned out, we see a team which plays outstanding hockey and can beat any team in the world on their day. India is a very young team and the players are going to find it difficult to maintain their levels without any competition. I doubt it will be possible for the federation to make any other top team travel to India. I'm not even sure if India can face Pakistan at the moment, even if they can, India are a much superior team to Pakistan currently in every aspect of the game. I used to love watching Pakistan play, but it is sad what has happened to their team. India-Pakistan games used to be major events some time ago, but now they are not nearly as competitive. However, it still might be a good idea for the two teams to start playing each other again because some competition is better than no competition.

DSD: We have had a procession of coaches has no means been an easy road and it starts with you getting the team to London 2012. How have they evolved and is it because of the core mostly remaining the same, the likes of Sreejesh, Manpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh are still around...

Michael Nobbs: That was a conscious decision I made when I was in charge, I was confident that Manpreet Singh would be Olympic captain one day. In my opinion, one has to play 100-200 games for the country to become a top international player. When I was in charge, the senior players could dribble the ball like magicians, but their fundamentals were very poor and that's where we lost out to the European teams. So I made it a point, along with Harendra Singh, to ensure that the junior players who were coming in, had the fundamentals of the game instilled in them. Harendra also did a fantastic job with the players and now we see a team which has good chemistry, strong basics and a very good coach. I'm delighted to see Manpreet Singh do so well for the team. He has been an outstanding captain and led by example from the first time I met him ten years ago.