Bhubaneswar: Ahead of India’s first match in the Hockey World Cup against South Africa, the Indian men’s coach Harendra Singh exchanges pleasantries with familiar journalists, jokes a bit and says “this [the World Cup] is the best moment of my career.”
He is either at ease or appears to be at ease, seated under the Sword of Damocles. For, ever since he took over as the men’s team coach in May, India have finished winners (along with Pakistan) in just one multi-nation tournament – the Asian Champions Trophy. And, the people who run Indian hockey have been fickle with the coaches, especially of the men’s team. No coach, in the last nine years, has lasted more than 26 months.
And, the one who did last that long – Roelant Oltmans – had this to say when he departed: “We all know India is not the easiest of countries to work - especially in the sporting sector because of a host of issues. But in my mind, I was always prepared. When I took up the offer, I knew someday I will be sacked but I was ready for that.”
The job, hence, is strictly for those who are prepared and equipped to walk on thin ice. Harendra Singh was savvy of this uncertainty when he, the then women’s team coach, swapped jobs with Sjoerd Marijne, who coached the men.
In his first media interaction after he was appointed the coach, he acknowledged this. “A coach who doesn’t acknowledge this risk (of failure) can’t deliver results,” he’d said.
Three major tournaments – Champions Trophy, Asian Games and World Cup – lay in wait, all happening within six months.
The first two are over. India finished runners-up to Australia after a tense penalty shootout in the Champions Trophy. In the Asian Games, wherein they were favourites to defend their gold medal, they lost to world No 12 Malaysia in the semi-finals and failed to qualify directly for the Olympics.
‘This is an opportunity’
Asked if he was pressed for time, in May, Harendra had replied, “I am a person who will take this challenge whenever it’s given to me. Which coach will have three major tournaments waiting for him [to begin] in two months. Otherwise you’ll have to wait for two years to prove yourself that I am a good coach. I don’t need time.”
Going by his own words, the World Cup, then, is the last opportunity for Harendra to prove himself this year (even if players – former and current – testify his proficiency).
On Wednesday, when he was asked about this pressure, he repeated what he said six months ago: “This is not pressure, this is an opportunity.”
It isn’t going to be an easy path for the hosts to reach even the next stage: last-eight. They, world No 5, are the second highest-ranked team in their group (Pool C), which includes Belgium (world No 3), Canada (No 11) and South Africa (No 15). But even if they finish second-best in the group, they need to take a roundabout and a perilous path to the last-eight. India – if they finish second or third in their group – will play any of these four teams in the crossover stage: the Netherlands, Germany, Malaysia and Pakistan.
Asked about this, Harendra said: “Did anyone think Ireland will reach women’s World Cup final and Croatia make it to FIFA World Cup final? Every team works on their strategy. It’s about that particular day. We want to top the pool and not play in crossovers. You get an extra day then and know who you will play.”
The contest against South Africa, however, is expected to be easy. “I expect their (SA) strikers will try to break us. But we have strategies in place. It’s mixed results so far for us (this year). We won’t compromise on playing attacking hockey against any team. We want to think ahead of the opponents,” said Harendra.
Skill-wise, India are superior to the South Africans. Their experience of having played more games might help them as well. The first game, therefore, must be smooth ride. But it isn’t a guarantee that India can ace all lower-ranked teams in the tournament. In clutch games, against sides that have ironlike defence, India’s struggled.
The Malaysians in the Asian Games semi-final, for instance, constantly blocked the Indians, which created pressure that led India to concede a last-minute goal and the match went on to shootouts. An all-out attack on such situations might prove counter-productive for the team.
As Harendra said on Tuesday, from the past, he and the team learns. Such lessons, Harendra would hope, will help him and his team to achieve glory in front of thousands of their countrymen.