In the dystopian and rather dysfunctional world of Indian hockey, the sacking of a coach doesn’t make you fret anymore. It’s passé. But the consequences of such decisions from the debilitated, decaying offices of Hockey India (HI) will have far reaching consequences for the future of Indian hockey; if at all there is or there was a future. It’s not the sacking of Harendra Singh that is worrying anymore. For the ones inside that office, whether it the CEO Elena Norman or the high performance director David John, surrounded by the vapid Mushtaque Ahmad (president, HI) and Rajinder Singh (secretary-general), what is disquieting is the complete trivialisation of Indian hockey and its coaches.
Hockey India very cleverly worded the press release that removed Harendra from his position as chief coach - “The Committee has recommended to reassign Dronacharya Awardee Harendra Singh as Coach for the Indian Junior Men’s Hockey Team.”
There was no way Harendra would have survived unless he would have won the World Cup. It wasn’t a pipe dream either. But Harendra, not prone to emotional bursts when it comes to nuanced answers, reflected, “I knew I was out the day we lost to Holland in the quarter-finals.” His emotional outburst later in the post-match press-conference 'we played against 13 and not against eleven', pertaining to the umpires didn’t go down well with the FIH, headed by none other than Dr Narendra Batra. That later Ric Charlesworth, winning coach of the 2010 and 2014 Australian teams remarked that the umpires could have done a better job was of no consequence.
Honestly, it’s not the World Cup failure that ensures that Harendra is without a coaching job. It was the failure of India not winning the Asian Games in Jakarta that made Hockey India get the guillotine ready. There is no doubt that if there was a gap of six months between Jakarta and Bhubaneswar, Harendra would have been shunted out. But the question, in this rather purposeless hire and fire coach policy that Mr Batra, Elena and David John indulge in, is whether an Asian Games gold medal could even have saved Harendra. After all, Terry Walsh won the 2014 Asian Games gold and was sacked immediately by Batra. Fragile egos have always been the driving force behind most Hockey India presidents and officials – from the time of Ashwini Kumar, MAM Ramaswamy, R Prasad, IM Mahajan, KPS Gill and now even though he is the FIH president and IOA president, it is Batra who runs Hockey India.
What is galling is the complete trivialisation of a talented Indian coach. Talent or not can be differing opinions. It is up for debate. But numbers give you a fair bearing in any sport – sportsperson or coach. It was in 1994, Sydney that we finished fifth in the World Cup. After that we have finished 10th, 11th, 8th and 9th, the last two with foreign coaches – Jose Brasa and Terry Walsh. In 24 years, Odisha has been our best ever finish – 6th. The result of that finish is yet another sacking. More bothersome is that within six months of being appointed, Harendra is out of the job. And India start a search that will bring in the 12th coach since Jose Brasa was appointed in 2009-10; a coach every year.
In a sane world, in a saner hockey federation managed by sane people, Harendra would be called and asked – “I think we could have done better. But congratulations for finishing 6th and do let us know what all you need to finish on the podium at Tokyo and what are the plans for the next World Cup. You have four years on the job.” A progressive federation would have also told him – “give us your choice of a technical director and oh, by the way, we were thinking of Ric Charlesworth.”
Harendra, at the moment, is in Varanasi delivering a lecture on leadership at the Banaras Hindu University. In a moment that could be described as utterly disappointing for him, he still managed to laugh. His summary of the decision was a crisp ‘disappointing and unprofessional.’
What is mystifying and disconcerting is the fact that Harendra wasn’t given a hearing – a chance to explain a sixth position and an opportunity to show the path ahead? A professional organisation would do that. But that is like Burundi sending a man to the moon.
Harendra wanted a hearing. “Of course, I did,” he says. “I want to know where I failed. Tell me, where did I lack? And why didn’t they include me in the meeting? Wasn’t the meeting about me? Shouldn’t I be allowed to explain my report card? Even in a school, a child gets a hearing when the matter of his or her performance comes up.”
Harendra breaks off his line of questions by once again saying that his removal ‘was in haste and completely unprofessionalism.’ But to have asked for anything more from a committee that has the servile RP Singh (former World Cupper), the docile Harbinder Singh (Olympian) and the subservient BP Govinda (Olympian) would have been more ambitious than winning the World Cup.
BG Joshi, hockey statistician, puts forward some numbers pertaining to Harendra’s tenure as coach. Against the world’s top 16 teams, Harendra’s team has played 14 matches, winning six, drawing six and losing only twice in regulation time. Twice India went onto lose in shootouts against Malaysia (Asian Games, semi-finals) and Australia (Champions Trophy, final). Not bad for a coach who had always been interim coach or coached the junior side to some remarkable triumphs including the 2016 Junior World Cup.
If Harendra had to lose his position, then why wasn’t Chris Ciriello also asked to leave? After all, he is the analytical coach and it’s on his expertise that the chief coach would normally operate. A day after the defeat against Holland, I had asked Harendra about his own future and he was candid enough to say “I am ok with whatever decisions are taken. But I know I did a good job.” But out of the blue he said, “I don’t know about myself but Chris Ciriello would remain with the team.”
So then why does the high performance director David John still lurk in the vicinity of Hockey India when he had been publicly rebuked by being taken out of the World Cup selection committee for speaking about players just after the Asian Games?
Ciriello was brought in without any coaching experience. Yes, he was the hat-trick man in the 2014 World Cup final that Australia won 6-1 against Holland. But is that good enough to be an analytical coach or an assistant coach? It takes years of watching and poring over numbers, graphics to be able to understand and analyse a hockey match. Will RP Singh, Harbinder Singh, Govinda be able to explain the reason to retain Ciriello or David John? Or for that matter can John and Norman call a press conference and answer questions to India’s future in the sport after what they would probably insist has been a bad 2018? Normally, CEOs of companies do answer questions.
Under Harendra, India finished outside the podium once – the 6th place at the World Cup. India won the Asian Champions Trophy, finished with a bronze at the Asian Games and took silver at the Champions Trophy in Breda against the top nations assembled. When Oltmans won silver at the London Champions Trophy, it was hailed as a renaissance. Oltmans preened and strutted before the Indian media. Harendra struggles with an appropriate emotion after his sacking.
At the Odisha World Cup, most former players, all there to watch the tournament said “Harendra should be given the team till the next World Cup.” A few of those names were 75’ World Cup winning captain Ajit Pal Singh, Col Balbir Singh, Dhanraj Pillay, AB Subbiah, Ashish Ballal, V Bhaskaran, Dilip Tirkey, Prabodh Tirkey, MM Somaya, Merwyn Fernandez. Another hefty who said Harendra was doing a good job was the incomparable Charlesworth. Do we weight in the collective experience, wisdom of all these players against David John and Norman?
At the World Cup, former Indian captain Bhaskaran had thundered when asked if India needed a coach change. “Why do you want to remove Harendra? What is the need? Yes, we lost the match against Holland but it’s not the end of Indian hockey. I can see the improvement. This team has played well. He is an Indian coach and when we have a chance to keep an Indian coach in the system, why not?”
It’s not known what decision Harendra will make. Technically, he hasn’t been sacked. He has been reassigned to the junior side. In just a year, Harendra has moved from the women’s team to the men’s team and now HI awaits his decision to move him to the junior men’s team. If Harendra says, ‘yes’, the image of the Indian hockey coach would be reduced to a frivolous figure, a pliable commodity. Looking at it from where Harendra is standing, the man loves to coach, to dream and create wins. Harendra is not a silver-tongued orator willing to sway audiences to keep his job. The team has inadequacies and one doesn’t need a Batra, David John or an Norman to point that out. Yet, there was enough hunger shown throughout 2018 to warrant the Japanese coach Seigfried Aikman say, “Its Asia’s best team with a very bright future.” Maybe, Harendra and HI couldn’t figure out how bright that future was.
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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2019 17:07 PM