There is a scene in the 2007 movie Chak De! India, where the coach of the India women’s team Kabir Khan (in the movie, the role is essayed by Shah Rukh Khan), asks his assembled players ‘Who do you play for?’
Player after player steps up and names the state they represent. Each answer seems to irritate the coach until finally one player says she plays for India. It is a dramatic moment and one that allows Kabir Khan to make his expectations clear.
“I don’t hear the name of states nor do I see them. I only hear just one name: I-N-D-I-A,” says Kabir Khan with a conviction that showcases his determination.
Nearly a decade later as the India men’s junior team was preparing for the World Cup, coach Harendra Singh was trying to imbibe a similar way of functioning in his young players. Players from the same state were pulled up for having dinner or lunch together.
“Even staying in the same room with your state player was not allowed. There used to be a fine of Rs 500,” recalls Armaan Qureshi, who was part of the then junior team.
Now, Harendra isn’t Kabir Khan but this is probably as close as Indian hockey can get to that. He has his own unique Chak De policy and so far, it has worked for him.
While some might argue that this whole episode was inspired by the Shah Rukh Khan starrer, only those who have observed him from close quarters will concur that the newly appointed men’s team coach would never need a movie to come up with such a policy. Drama, one might say, comes pretty naturally to him.
Harendra, the first Indian to be named a full-time coach of the men’s team since the eighth-time champions failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, is obsessed with winning matches and seeing the national flag being hoisted during the medal ceremonies. It is something he wasn’t able to consistently achieve as a player and he can push himself and his players to the limits in order to end up on the top of the podium..
During the successful 2016 Junior World Cup campaign, a triumph that was vital in getting him the senior team job, Harendra opted against attending the funeral of his cousin as the team was to leave for the 2014 Johor Cup in Malaysia. He wanted to send a clear message: the team came first.
Winning that crown was an obsession that Harendra had lived with ever since the disastrous 2005 Junior World Cup campaign where his Indian team failed to win a medal despite going into the edition as pre-tournament favourite.
Experts had then questioned his coaching acumen and even hinted that his lack of experience of playing at the highest level hurt the team.
“That day I decided I had to be an FIH coach and joined 14 courses with my own money. That day I became fanatic that I was no Olympian but I will create Olympians. I was an average player but better than many who went for the 1996 Olympics. I have produced 20-25 Olympians so far. But tab ki ek khalish (hurt) aaj tak thi, because my World Cup was in front of me and I could not get it. I had to wait for 10 years but I finally got it, there is only relief,” the only Indian coach with a FIH certification had told The Hindu soon after that triumph that ended a 15-year wait for the title.
He didn’t stop at just enrolling himself in FIH courses. He was a regular face in the stands in major international tournaments where Indian team played and made notes of the opposition teams, a quality that made him a must-have assistant for the likes of V Bhaskaran and later Spaniard Jose Brasa.
The 52-year-old would have an updated dossier on most of the top teams and began learning about the use of technology in coaching at the time when the senior Indian coaches were happy speaking about their golden days as players and only relied on motivational talks like ‘jaan laga dena’ (put your life on the line), ‘dil lagake khelna’ (play with heart).
“Hockey ke liye paagal hai yeh banda (he is crazy about hockey), says Indian forward Dhanraj Pillay, who still remains one of Harendra’s closest friend. “He used to sit till 3:00 am in the night in front of the laptop... learning and developing new training techniques. He loves gadgets and knows about the latest equipment and technology being used in the sport.”
Harendra has incorporated the Yo-Yo test and also uses the Global Positioning Systems during training. He also employs the NeuroTracker, a training programme which tracks a player’s neural networks that govern situational awareness, attention, executive function and cognitive stamina.
But above all the former full-back has always been a hard taskmaster who would not shy away from giving a dressing down to any player in front of the entire squad. He is a strict disciplinarian especially when it comes to implementing a fitness regime, including diet plans, for players to sustain the high pressing style he wants the team to play.
“Fitness and strengths is one of the strong points of the Europeans. I don’t want any player to carry extra weight on their body that can be a hindrance to the team. We want a lean and strong body,” Harendra had told The Field when he was the women’s team coach.
This emphasis on fitness was probably incorporated during his first coaching stint in Lyon, France, where he had gone as a player.
“I used play for HC Lyon in the French league where the team was coached by Tony Fernandes,” recalls Pillay. “It was Tony who got Harendra on board in 1995 as a player. Realising his potential as coach, Tony asked Harendra to get involved with the junior squads of HC Lyon.”
Soon Harendra was managing the Lyon junior team and was put in charge of their defensive play.
Though, Harendra’s coaching career began in France, those who have played with the 52-year-old had seen sparks of his ability to read the game and analyse every loss with clinical precision while keeping the emotions in check.
“When we used to play together in Air India, he was one of the fastest full-backs in the squad. He used to read the opponent’s game very fast and then breakdown their tactics. He then used to call me and tell me to mark a certain player so that their tactics would fall flat,” says Harendra’s former teammate Rahul Singh.
Harendra the player
With his family hailing from Bihar, making it as a professional player was never going to be easy. The state has never been a hotbed for hockey stars. Harendra would find his bearings to pursue a career in hockey in Delhi where he signed up for IFFCO Tokio.
He played as a full-back and began making a name for himself in the circuit. In 1988, former India coach Joaquim Carvalho made him an offer to come play for him at Mahindra & Mahindra in Mumbai.
Harendra didn’t think twice and made the switch because many players from Mumbai – Mark Patterson, Edgar Mascarenhas, Darryl D’Souza, John Fernandes to name a few – were in the national squad back then. His teammates also included former India captain Dhanraj Pillay.
It was during his stint at Mahindra & Mahindra that Harendra met his would-be wife Samiksha Singh. “Samiksha’s father VK Sharma used to coach the Mahindra football team back then. Harry was very smart and had a good personality,” recalled Pillay.
The couple has two children, a son and a daughter. His family has supported him through thick and thin. “Such has been their committment that even when his son was diagnosed with mild vision impairment, it was his wife who took the lead even as Harendra was engaged with the task of looking after the India Junior team, which was headed to the World Cup at that time,” Pillay says.
However, despite his passion, Harendra has never imposed his love for hockey on his family. His daughter is studying abroad. His son plays football. In fact, while guiding his son on the football field, Harendra too has found a passion for the sport. “He plans to do a Masters coaching course in football,” says Pillay.
His true calling
In 1990, Harendra left Mahindra and joined Air India, where he become a senior manager with the company.
The India call-up wasn’t too far away and he made his debut at the 1990 Asian Games where India won silver. While he did accomplish his dream of playing for the national squad, he could not achieve the success required to cement one’s spot in the side. However, he it did not take long for Harendra to find his calling as a coach.
“Harendra never got enough opportunities to play for India,” said former India coach MK Kaushik. “It was then that he found his true calling: coaching.”
Finding his feet in India
He spent nearly five years in Lyon before returning to India. In 1998, he attended the Asian Games, shelling out money from his own pocket, to make a note of the tactics employed by the other teams. He travelled to various tournaments learning the tricks of the trade. It is a habit that has persisted. Till recently, he would travel to watch tournaments whenever he had free time.
“He observes the coaching of style of various teams and constantly makes notes of what he requires. He was constantly upgrading himself,” said Pillay.
Two years later, ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Harendra was named as assistant to India coach Vasudevan Baskaran. While he did break into the Indian set-up, a stint as the head coach of the senior men’s national team always eluded him. He coached the national junior squad in 2005, 2006 and 2010.
He always was seen playing second fiddle. Back then, Hockey India was fixated with the idea of hiring a foreign coach and thus Harendra’s name never came up. Spain’s Jose Brasa was named coached in 2009 and Harendra was his assistant.
Brasa was sacked in 2010 after India’s failure to win the Asian Games. Soon after, Harendra followed in his coach’s footsteps as the team produced a below-par performance during the Azlan Shah Cup the following year.
Despite the fall, Harendra did not let it affect his resolve. In his down time, Harendra completed the Masters course offered by International Hockey Federation in coaching. He is the only Indian coach to have passed the course.
“He has trained under both Indian and foreign coaches. He has evolved over time and has gone with the flow throughout his career. Initially success was rare because he was adjusting to the demands of the game,” said Kaushik.
Most players say he has never feared change and always wanted to learn more about the game.
“I used to give him tips on coaching but ultimately he did what he wanted to do. He never felt that he was the best and did not need to learn,” says Pillay.
Getting it right
Harendra never lost focus despite being in and out of teams and in 2014, he was appointed as coach of the junior team once again. Harendra has since made his presence felt and let the results speak for themselves.
“Look at the men he was trained under as both player and coach. His knowledge about the game is second to none,” says Carvalho. “His man-management skills are good and he knows the mentality of the players. He maintains a database of whatever he has learnt over the time. He knows how to get the best out of players.”
According to Tushar Khandekar, who was Harendra’s assistant coach with the junior team, his former boss is one of the great learners of the game and it is this ability that will hold him in good stead with the national team.
“His stints with the women’s team and junior men’s team have only helped him in his cause to become the coach of the senior men’s team. I feel he now has the experience necessary to lead a team like India,” said Khandekar.
A no-nonsense coaching style
Harendra has always been a disciplinarian as a player and coach. “He used to hate losing. He used to very upset whenever we lost. He even knew where and how we lost the game as well. He was result oriented,” said Rahul Singh, who played with Harendra at Air India.
Thus, his coaching style involves a no-nonsense attitude and hours of training. Harendra has always motivated his players to do well and play to their strengths.
“When he steps on to the field, he keeps an eye on every player. He is ready to help anyone and has always motivated players to do well. He used to train us in all aspects of the game (defense and offence) and always told us to play hard,” said Armaan.
Harendra’s coaching style hasn’t changed over time.
“When I joined Indian Airlines in early 2000s, he was coach back then and, a lot of big names used to play for Indian Airlines. As a young player, he motivated me a lot and it perked my interest in the game as well. When someone makes a mistake, he tells them what needs to be rectified in their game,” said former India player Gurbaj Singh.
Task at hand
Life, though, is never lived without conflict. Harendra has faced a few within the hockey fraternity. Over the years, there have been accusations that Harendra adopted a divide and rule policy when it came to managing his sides. While no one has states the same on record, it has always remained a reference point for his critics.
Ironically, he returns at the helm of affairs in the national men’ team even as Hockey India tries to get the team in order after several senior players had complained about ousted coach Sjoerd Marijne’s policy of favouring younger players. One of the tasks at hand for Harendra will be to do away with any animosity that might have cropped up between junior and senior players during the last year.
“Harendra is loyal and not biased. He helps out everyone in the field. It’s not like seniors will be treated differently from the juniors,” said India player Dharamvir.
As Harendra begins a new chapter in his life as head coach, all his experience and tactical knowledge will be tested. While it is not the easiest task in the world, most believe that Harendra has the knowhow needed for the job.
“Chotta mat socho, bada socho, desh ke baare main socho hamesha,” is a motto that Harendra has preached to his wards over the years. With his first few months in the hot seat involving tough assignments with the Asian Games and the World Cup, he has no option but to think big, think about the country.