Many years back, 14 to be exact, Harendra Singh sat on a bench on the outside pitch at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium. It was one of those excruciatingly hot and humid days. A lone breeze from India Gate end provided relief. A cloud cover made it muggy. Harendra was oblivious to all this.
The cameraperson complained about sweat trickling into his ear phones. Over the sound of traffic drifting over from the road running parallel to the Stadium Gates, Harendra spoke about failure, success and frustration; in no particular order. But he wanted more from his life. He spoke about his playing days; his silver medal at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games when it could easily have been gold — India lost to Pakistan 2-3 in the final; about the punishing evening in Sydney after that 1-1 draw against Poland at the 2000 Olympics that deprived India of a semi-final spot.
He spoke about failure and success like a sage on wisdom. And in that he spoke about the drive to be a successful coach. “Maybe, I wasn’t taken too seriously as a player,” he confessed. “Maybe, they thought how can someone from Bihar (non-tribal areas) be a player . It did hurt me. But instead of being bitter, I promised that irrespective of which player comes from where, I will coach them to the top. I will never discriminate on the basis of which region you come from.”
In Kakamigahara, Japan, when China’s Liang Meiyu, sashayed the ball, back and forth on her stick, striding confidently towards Sunita as India led 5-4 in the shoot-out, her reverse flick found the lower portion of Sunita’s right pad. For Harendra and the team, it wasn’t a victory that hadn’t been achieved earlier but the sound of the girls screaming with delight will stay with Harendra longer than the shouts, back slaps and hoops of delights of the Indian juniors when they won the 2016 World Cup in Lucknow.
Most coaches pick up jobs after evaluating and weighing the pros and cons. There is no denying that after Roelant Oltmans was sacked as Indian men’s coach, Harendra did aspire to fill those shoes. He had very confidently said: “I will take them to the podium at the 2018 World Cup.” But neither did he pick up a phone and gripe when the job went to Sjoerd Marijne, the Indian women’s coach who was hauled off from the European tour to take charge. Emotion, attachment, passion, belief were all taken into consideration when Harendra was picked. It won’t be out of the realm of fantasy to say that Hockey India with the Asia Cup looming large decided that Harendra would be a good stop gap. After all, he had never coached a women’s team. And neither had he ever shown a desire to do so. But the answer, probably, to the surprise of many was a ‘Yes’ from Harendra.
The happiest person then was his daughter Anouksha Singh who said, “Finally, you are coaching a women’s team and I am so happy.” In a way, his 21-year-old daughter’s words not only inspired Harendra, he made a silent vow that win or lose, he wouldn’t give up on the women. “I will give my best,” he said before flying off to Japan.
After the 12th spot at the Rio Olympics, with all the latent talent and soft skills in the wrists of the Indian women, slugging it out against much fitter teams was letting them down. The morale was low and suddenly Indian women’s hockey seemed confused as to the direction they needed to take. The team that won the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester was skilful and hardy. They were a tough bunch who would beat you on the flick and then ram in a shoulder or two outside the striking circle.
The present bunch wasn’t soft but did need a few strong words. They needed someone speaking their language. Marijne in whatever time he had put in a structure and made them understand the language of using skill with pace in beating the opponent. Harendra tweaked the philosophy saying ‘only winning matters.’ Easier said than done but there is an earnestness about Harendra that percolates down to the lowest denominator in the team. For a player who is willing to put his life, pride and ego on the line, seeing this man’s passion is a vindication that when you play for India, win or lose, you come out bruised and bloodied. “If the spirit to win is there till the last second, you end up winning more and losing less,” says Harendra.
Yet there would have been lingering doubts before the final even though they had beaten China 4-1 in the Pool match. As hockey statistician BG Joshi points out India had played China 45 times winning only seven and losing 32 with six drawn games. In the Asia Cup, India had played China 11 times winning for the first time in the pool game and losing six while drawing four. The only piece of stats that gave some respite to the Indian team were the last five matches in which China won thrice with India winning twice. “But I think that strengthened the resolve of the team that they shouldn’t let this opportunity go waste,” says Harendra.
And that is exactly what happened in Kakamigahara. Off Gurjit Kaur’s stick flew in eight penalty corners apart from Navjot Kaur and Navneet Kaur’s five and four field goals respectively. It was tough to handle an Indian side which was playing through the middle and the flanks with considerable speed. Rani Rampal had three goals in the tournament and it’s good to take some pressure of one of India’s most gifted players. Despite all the talk about India’s rank and that they put it across teams ranked higher than them — Japan and China — India would find the path ahead much tougher. There is no doubt that there is a considerable gap in women’s hockey in the top six and then the rest. To build on this would be fantastic for India and it does give a huge boost when you know that you have qualified for the World Cup on your own steam and didn’t need South Africa who won the African Cup to hand you a berth.
Harendra says there were no secret mantras. “I said to the team that you have to play as a unit and everybody should go back to playing simple hockey,” he explained after India had won the final. “But there should be aggression so that the opponent knows the counter attack will be deadly,” he added.
Harendra usually likes opening up the field in the first quarter as it gives him a look into what the teams feel on the pitch; probably one of the reasons why India destroyed Japan in the semi-finals by taking a 3-0 lead in the first nine minutes. Japan couldn’t come back and even when they got back two goals, India still had enough in the tank to score a fourth and close the match.
Harendra knows things get tougher from here. “Now it’s serious work if you have to break into the top six,” he says. “It’s not easy but first the team needs to get a podium at the Commonwealth Games and then try to finish in the 6-8th position for the World Cup and win the Asian Games to qualify directly for the 2020 Olympics.” The good thing about winning the Asia Cup is that the bug would have hit the team and Harendra. Nothing can be better than a team whose hunger has been roused and a coach who knows winning enhances endless possibilities as a coach. When reminded that his idol Ric Charlesworth established a mark in world hockey as the 8-year unbeaten coach of the Australian women’s team, Harendra says, “He is a wizard and I try and follow his steps.”
There were endless congratulations that poured in for the team at Kakamigahara. But the one that made him emotional was from his daughter. The moment Harendra switched on his mobile, in came the WhatsApp call from a delighted, excited Anoushka, his daughter. “Papa, you have done it and I knew you would win it for the girls” he recalls that moment which made winning the Asia Cup all the more memorable. There will be no respite for this team now. Along with training there would be extreme sessions of reading the game and refining decision making. For the small town, glamour shy team, Harendra would also ensure confidence is built and a winning formula created that takes them to the Olympics. Harendra doesn’t know how to sit quiet and enjoy a win. It’s a part of his DNA. The team would have realised that by now.