Hockey India once again sprung a surprise on Tuesday when it announced a swap of coaches a few weeks after a medal-less Commonwealth Games campaign by asking Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne to once again take the reigns of the women’s team while elevating women’s team coach Harendra Singh to the men’s team job.
Over the years, Hockey India’s methods of hiring and firing coaches at the whims and fancies of the officials had made the entire process a joke. But Tuesday’s decision went beyond the realms of yet another amusement for those following Indian hockey and has raised serious questions about whether the decision makers are taking Indian hockey in the right direction.
Without going into the merits of the decision – Harendra Singh may just be the right man for the job – the first question that anyone ought to ask Hockey India is what stopped them from naming the former Indian international as coach when they sacked Roelant Oltmans in September last year.
While explaining that decision, Hockey India’s High Performance Director David John had said that Marijne understood the Indian culture after working with the women’s team for six months and getting any other foreign coach was going to be a time consuming exercise.
What he did not explain was how Harendra was less qualified than the Dutchman having played and coached all his life in India.
Taking Marijne by surprise
Marijne, who had not coached a men’s team prior to the Indian team’s assignment, himself had gone on record a few days earlier about his wish to stick with the women’s team but the visionaries in Hockey India had a different view of the entire situation then.
The unofficial word from the apex governing body is that the call was taken under the pressure of the Union Sports Ministry, who pays Marijne’s salary. It’s true that Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore was the one who announced the appointment through twitter even before Hockey India could make its decision public.
But what would have stopped the then Hockey Indian president Narinder Batra, who seems to be always willing to take on the authorities, from sounding a dissenting note is that the prerogative to appoint a coach always remains with the Federation and not the Ministry.
Marijne produced instant results by helping India win the Asian Cup and bag a bronze medal in the Hockey World League finals but all that came to nought just after one indifferent performance in the Commonwealth Games.
In the Commonwealth Games, India looked a disjointed unit and it is now clear that the players were not really happy with the coach’s policy of putting more responsibility on them while on the field and wanted a single line of command.
But Marijne’s coaching philosophy has always been known even when he was working with the women’s team and if Hockey India believes that the reason behind the below-par performance in Gold Coast was due to the lack of proper communication between the Dutchman and the players, it is difficult to understand how the 44-year-old would be able to communicate easily with the women players since they speak the same language and all that jazz.
It is also very difficult to understand why Marijne would want to continue as the women’s coach after being unceremoniously removed as the men’s team boss unless there are certain contractual obligations or he, himself, was keen to return as he shared a really good rapport with the women’s team.
Pressure on Harendra
The men have not played under an Indian coach for almost 10 years now, since India failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics under Joachim Carvalho, and one of the reasons many players gave for this situation was the personal biases and issues that crept between the players and Indian coaches in the past.
There is no point in speculating whether that will be case between Harendra and the current lot of players most of whom have played under him during his stint at the Junior team coach, which won the world title in 2016.
But one thing is sure. Tuesday’s developments also mean that Harendra Singh is caught between rock and a hard place. The Asian Games is just over two months away and he needs to help the squad regroup and rejuvenate.
If India fail to grab the 2020 Olympic berth in Indonesia in August under Harendra, it would not just hurt his future as a national team coach but also ensure that Indian coaches may not be considered for the job for another decade. Though, as these decisions have shown today, there are no guarantees in India hockey.