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Rolling Back to Square One: Hockey India Continues Coaching Musical Chairs, Boots Out Harendra Singh

Leslie Xavier |
Disappointed with underwhelming results in 2018, Hockey India’s High Performance & Development Committee has asked Harendra Singh to step down as coach of the senior team and instead take up the mantle of the junior side. Applicants are now welcome to apply for the senior team post. Few may choose to though.
Harendra Singh, Indian hockey team coach

Harendra Singh was in charge of the Indian men’s hockey team for eight months and coached the side to a Champions Trophy silver medal, Asian Champions Trophy gold and bronze at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta (Pic: Twitter, HI).

By sacking, or rather ‘demoting’, coach Harendra Singh, Hockey India (HI) has triggered a chain of events that could jeopardize not just the current senior men’s side, but also the junior squad, and thereby the future of Indian hockey.

In a review analysis, the High Performance Committee of Hockey India, in its infinite wisdom, decided on the course of action that has clearly disrupted the learning and development curve of the national side. The damage, or the potential for damage, doesn’t end there.

HI will send out an ad inviting applicants for the coach’s job, and the thinktank is confident some of the best in the world would queue up with their resumes. But the knee jerk sacking — this is not the first time that has happened — has put the reputation of Indian hockey in bad light.

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A couple of international coaches Newsclick spoke to after Harendra’s reappointment was announced, said no coach in their right minds would want to take up the Indian job, once a lucrative draw for many European and Australian experts. Unless they are desperate for the money, of course. And cash hungry coaches are not what Indian hockey needs at the moment. To add to that, there is also the fact that since 2019 is going to be the year where all sides will vie for Olympic qualification, most of the good coaches attached to national sides will be unavailable.   

Happy New Year Indian hockey. All the best!

Harendra is the third coach to exit the team since the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio — Roelant Oltmans was given the boot in September of 2017, Sjoerd Marijne had a stint from October 2017 to April 2018, replaced by Harendra who lasted eight months.

Under Harendra, despite the bad miss at the Asian Games, the team looked set for bigger things. The way the side played at the World Cup in Odisha last month, including the hard fought draw against eventual champions Belgium and the narrow loss against silver medallists the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, indicated the team is on the verge of a coming of age.

The eight months under Harendra was not a complete loss either. India won silver in the Champions Trophy, gold in the Asian Champions Trophy, while the quarterfinal at the World Cup against the Netherlands could have gone either way. The big disappointment was a bronze at the Asian Games, where India were favourites for gold.

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The World Cup result, though disappointing, also has a silver lining. India, for the first time, looked like a side which belonged in the top six bracket of the world. And among those top six sides, anybody could have won the big prize. Belgium did, India missed out, the team learnt lessons. Coach Harendra perhaps had a plan to build from those lessons learnt.

Instead Harendra, provided he takes up the Hockey India offer, will join the junior squad — a bunch of youngsters who are playing some great hockey under their current coach Jude Felix. Oh, but wait... What will Felix do when Harendra takes over the coaching responsibilities?

This has the potential to turn into one big soap opera!

Felix would obviously not want leave his charge midway. Then again, if the all-powerful Hockey India bosses have their say, he will have to step down. Perhaps he would be offered the men’s team. Maybe Hockey India would consider bringing back Marijne, the women’s coach, who is used to musical chairs such as these.

The question which the High Performance Committee has perhaps overlooked is how the players will cope with the changes envisaged for the bright future. Experts believe the team will be in disarray as there will be a lot of changes that a new coach, whoever that might be, brings in. That would involve, among many things, a complete overhaul of the playing system even. Harendra will end up doing it with the junior side while the new senior coach would exert his will as well.

Read More | Belgium’s Decade Long Journey to the Pinnacle of Hockey

Players, on their part, will go through a period of insecurity, unsure of what their roles in the team would be under a new regime. Such processes happen with all the teams, but bringing it on during an important year where India would play for Olympic qualification, defies logic and sanity.

India will attempt qualifying for the Olympics in the Hockey Series, which in essence is the ‘lesser’ tier to the FIH Pro League where the top nine teams in the world vie. India will play lower-ranked teams in the Hockey Series, and on paper, they should breeze through and make it to the final Olympic qualifying tournament.

However, with the current churning, the rather poisonous mix of insecure and confused players and the pressure of playing and beating tricky lower-ranked sides, could end up proving too much!

Remember Malaysia at the Asian Games semifinals. India were overwhelming favourites, and the goalscoring spree they were in before that match suggested Harendra’s men would romp into the gold medal clash. We know how that pressure situation ended.

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In addition, one must also remember that the Pro League starts later this month, while India aren’t scheduled to play in the Hockey Series till June this year. Their next assignment, at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, is in March this year.

All of this indicates a clear lack of foresight on the part of Hockey India, and a clear indicator about who they think the lowest common denominator is, when it comes to team results.

Common sense dictates that a team’s performance will improve with an extension in playing time against high grade opposition. Coaches, trainers, analysts and players are variables that will work perfectly under an extended interaction period. Applying this logic though is beyond Hockey India.

They have withdrawn from the highest grade tournament (Pro League) without an official explanation (although the accepted one is that it is easier to qualify for the Olympics through the Hockey Series), denied regular playing time to their team, and now sacked their third manager in three years in the build up to the Olympics. All with a view towards winning gold. Make sense of it as you will.

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