The usually poised Harendra Singh, after India’s Hockey World Cup quarter-final defeat to the Netherlands, launched into a tirade against the umpires.
“I can only say that we can fight 11 versus 11 and not 13 versus 11,” Harendra had said in the press conference following India’s 1-2 defeat. “[The umpires] cannot rob the World Cup from this team.”
The lament, it seemed, stemmed from a profound disappointment of losing a clutch match in front of a passionate home crowd; for the umpires didn’t commit a blunder that turned the game’s fate. But several journalists in the press conference room murmured that Harendra’s intemperate complaint against umpires wasn’t just out of the regret of missing out on the semi-finals, where many thought India, the world No 5, would reach. But also because he knew, then, that his days as the men’s team coach were numbered.
So, it wasn’t surprising when Hockey India, on Thursday, announced his ouster as the head coach of the men’s team. When he’d be removed seemed to be the question; not if he’d be. Because, when it comes to arbitrarily changing coaches, Hockey India has a terrific track record.
Hire and fire
India’s failure to defend their gold medal in the Asian Games and sixth-place finish in the World Cup were the reasons for Harendra’s removal as coach, said HI’s High Performance and Development Committee Chairman RP Singh.
But there were several bright spots, too, in Harendra’s tenure as coach. He helped India win their second Champions Trophy silver medal, after losing in shootouts to Australia in the final. India surged to their best-ever position, fifth, in the world rankings. They shared the Asian Champions Trophy title with Pakistan after a rained out final.
“Harendra’s given India their best ranking in a long time. You spend 30-40 crores on foreign coaches over the last 18 years. But he helped India achieve the top-5 rank and win a Champions Trophy silver medal in a span of eight months. One must understand the magnitude of his achievement,” former Indian goalkeeper Ashish Ballal told Scroll.
Hockey legend Ric Charlesworth had said during the World Cup that a coach should be given four to six years to build a team and nurture it.
“End results will go up and down. This is not perfect science or mathematics. It’s human behaviour,” he’d said.
But HI’s been incredibly fickle when it comes to coaches. Harendra was the Indian men’s team’s sixth coach in the last six years. No coach in the last nine years has stayed longer than the illustrious Roelant Oltmans, who got a 26-month term.
‘Playing with big egos’
HI’s impatience is evident in their appointment of coaches in the last two years. Oltmans was sacked unceremoniously in 2016 and the then women’s team coach, Sjoerd Marijne, was asked to take over the men’s side. Harendra, who’d guided the junior men’s side to a World Cup win, was appointed the women’s team coach. Following the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, wherein the Indian teams – men’s and women’s – finished fourth, Marijne and Harendra were asked to swap places.
Hire, fire, chop, change.
Ballal criticised HI for its shortsighted, erratic decision-making. “There are people who haven’t played modern hockey are taking these decisions. It’s nothing about hockey; it’s playing with big egos and that won’t take you anywhere,” he said.
Aslam Sher Khan, who was part of India’s 1975 World Cup-winning squad, concurred with Ballal. Coaches, he said, shouldn’t be made scapegoats. “You can change the players, you can change the coaches, but who’s running Hockey India?” he asked.
“We are one of the richest countries for hockey. We have a great heritage. But why haven’t we been able to progress? Unless the people at the top are accountable, this will be the case till 2020 and even after that,” Aslam warned.
HI has invited applications for the appointment of the new coach. But not many would want to apply for a job, wherein they a feel a sword constantly hanging over their heads. Whoever’s applying could keep in mind Oltmans’ words, which he spoke after his ouster: “When I took up the offer, I knew someday I will be sacked but I was ready for that.”
HI’s next step will be crucial, for the Olympics is just over a year away and India haven’t qualified for the quadrennial event yet. It needs to appoint the right person and give them enough time and a realistic target to achieve within a stipulated time.
Not for the first time in recent past, Indian hockey is on choppy waters again.