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Harendra Singh's appointment as Indian men's hockey team coach stinks of gender bias, leaves women's side in muddle

Even Balkishen Singh, coach of the 1980 Moscow Gold medal winning Indian hockey team, couldn’t have envisaged that in 38 years, Indian hockey would appoint 34 coaches. In May 2018, the 34th chief coach of the Indian hockey team is now Harendra Singh.

At a personal level, patience, ambition, diligence and an overriding craving to take India to a podium finish at a World Cup has paid off for Harendra. He lived, breathed, subsisted on this very sentiment and conviction that, one day, this position will be his. He did believe that this very position should have been his when Roelant Oltmans was asked to leave as Chief Coach but though hugely disappointed he took over the women’s team and made them Asia Cup Champions.

 Harendra Singhs appointment as Indian mens hockey team coach stinks of gender bias, leaves womens side in muddle

Harendra Singh was appointed as Indian men's hockey coach on Tuesday. Image Courtesy: Hockey India

No small feat for a team that finished 12th at the Rio Olympics. But that fire to take over the men’s team was raging and knowing the man, he must have stoked it once in a while reminding himself that in the world of sport, defeats and victories are part of the same coin; you never know which one flips and lands perfectly. And it did when Hockey India announced after a week of drama, flip-flops, intrigue, meetings, and conferences, player interactions that the men’s team coach Sjoerd Marijne would become the women’s chief coach and Harendra Singh, the women’s coach would take over the men’s team. Dizzying! Yes, ever so slightly.

In the world of Albert Camus, absurdity is no reason to commit suicide. In fact, the French philosopher, author, journalist and Nobel Prize winner said revolt is the answer. Mutiny in the ranks happened when the players met Hockey India, to be more specific, Dr Narinder Batra, and reportedly spoke about not being happy with the present management which is Chief Coach Marijne. The Dutchman’s philosophy didn’t go down too well with the players. But it is quite clear that Mr Batra, a man known to fire coaches on whim and fancy was already in a furious mood after the Indian team finished 4th at the Commonwealth Games, a tournament where the minimum expectation was a silver medal; like on the previous two occasions. It is tempting to think of what could have transpired if India was on the podium. Would the players have revolted?

Spare a thought about a decision that stinks of gender bias. The women’s team, not always at the forefront of Hockey India’s thought process now suddenly finds itself anchorless. The women, of course, didn’t have a one-to-one with Batra. Nobody checked with them what they wanted – well, they also finished 4th but yes, they beat the Olympic Champions England and lost to them in the 3rd/4th play-off; a 6-0 spanking that didn’t destroy any reputations. In fact, most women hockey fans were looking forward to the July World Cup. It also begs a question – if Marijne wasn’t good enough for the men, how is he good enough for the women? Or did Hockey push the women’s team onto the altar, the sacrificial lambs in what has always been a men’s sport in India. Eliza Nelson, captain of the 1980 Moscow Olympic team that finished 4th, once said wistfully, “If only we had Balkishen as coach, we would have played the Olympic Final.”

But think of one player in the management who survives the purge, at least now. High Performance Director David John survived the blood bath after the 2012 London Olympics when India finished 12th. Michael Nobbs lost his job. Then Terry Walsh came in and won the 2014 Asian Games Gold. He was sacked. John was still around. Then Paul van Ass came in and promptly was sacked after the HWL Semi-finals in Antwerp. John was still there. High Performance Director Oltmans became chief coach till the 2020 Olympics and David was appointed as High Performance Director in November, 2016. By the time the HWL semi-finals happened in London 2017 and India lost to Malaysia and Canada, Oltmans was sacked. But the man who survived was David John. And now with Marijne gone, the cat with the nine lives is David John.

But the bigger question is can Harendra and David John partake from the same plate? Oltmans and David’s relationship was tenuous at the least. And there is no doubt that if John had pushed Harendra’s case, it would have been the 2016 Junior World Cup winning coach who would have taken the Indian team to the 2017 Asia Cup in Dhaka and not Marijne.

Yet, if Indian hockey wants resurgence at the top level, it needs Harendra to focus on what he is good at — aggressive hockey, an excellent player-to-coach communication and a return to the system that gives power and strength to the skills available in the Indian team. Culturally, an Indian team cannot play a mixed system that has bits and bobs of Australia, Europe and South America. Discipline is vital as Walsh showed in the structure of the team that went to the 2014 World Cup and Asian Games. Harendra’s biggest asset is that he speaks the players’ language. Just after he won the 2016 Junior World Cup, he said in a chat about the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar: “The World Cup is in India and I am confident that I can take this team to the podium.”

Confidence has never been in short supply for a man who could never play beyond the 1990 Beijing Asian Games. Though, he did believe that he wasn’t given an extra chance by the selection committee, that frustration, anger, discontent was channeled into coaching as he took the team to the semi-finals of the 2005 Junior World Cup in Rotterdam. In fact, that team had the players, skill, ingredients to play the World Cup final. After losing to Australia 3-2 in the semi-finals, where India led 2-0, Harendra later said, “It’s terrible that we couldn’t hold on or score more. We lost a big opportunity.” What was left unsaid was that even as a coach Harendra could have broken into the men’s senior team earlier.

Not that he hasn’t had stints as national coach – From 2004 to 2011, he has been coach three times over five tournaments and won the 2009 Azlan Shah. Even as assistant coach to V Bhaskaran at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he came within 45 seconds of taking the Indian team into the Olympic semi-final and it’s with regret and deep disappointment he would remember the 2006 Doha Asian Games where India ended up 5th. And then at the 2006 World Cup at Monchengladbach, India finished 11th.

But it’s been that burning ambition of doing it right that has kept him there, perched in the system that one day, I will get my chance. There will be detractors and critics who would point to him not being an Olympian, in many ways, a lack of pedigree in Indian hockey. But the world of hockey has moved on with professional coaches coming in and Harendra through the years earning his spurs.

The spotlight will now move to the team he selects for the Champions Trophy. Millions of eyes will be on Harendra as he navigates through the Champions Trophy (June), the Asian Games (August) and then the event that could very well decide his fate in Indian hockey. But first, the Champions Trophy and for a man who believes in the convergence of skill and power, will he bring back players like Gurbaj Singh into the system?

It was Harendra as coach of Ranchi Rays that the Punjab player was bought for $99,000, the highest bid for an Indian player. It was also a team that had Manpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra and Kothajit Singh. In fact, back then in November, 2016, Harendra had said: “Before the bidding began, we only wanted him. In our defensive structure, he fits in beautifully. We had decided to go all out to get him and we have the best right-half in the country.” Two years later, it would be interesting to know if Harendra still believes Gurbaj remains the best right-half. Only recently, Punjab won the Senior National Championships. Punjab’s captain was Gurbaj Singh.

An Indian coach in so many ways is ordained to wear the robes of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology, condemned to push a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again; Olympics after Olympics (since 1980) and World Cup after World Cup (since 1975). Probably, it’s time to shed those robes. Banish the demons. Write new chapters. Maybe, it’s the most unlikely of them all, the non-Olympian, Harendra Singh for whom fate and destiny has finally combined to create a future that can only benefit from the past.

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Updated Date: May 01, 2018 20:24:18 IST