Coach Harendra Singh - Reliving the 5 most memorable matches

Harendra Singh
Harendra Singh
Subhashish Majumdar

Just over a year has passed since Hockey India's sudden and unprecedented coach swap following the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, which saw Harendra Singh take charge of the senior men's team as head coach.

Following a playing career that was shortened by internal team wrangles, Harendra took up mentoring at the turn of the century when Indians in the profession were clearly struggling to keep up with the changing times - which necessitated the advent of foreign coaches in order to remain competitive on the world stage.

Waxing and waning fortunes failed to deter the former India international who idolized Zafar Iqbal and Mohammad Shahid - while countering Bihari insults, and numerous downturns, to work his way up the ladder in the echelons of the coaching fraternity.

Harendra Singh, who was keen on ironing out the deficiencies of the women's side following a brave show at Gold Coast in April last year, was suddenly faced with a daunting task.

With three prestigious tournaments lined up in the space of six months, there was scant room for error, but the FIH-certified coach stood his ground and decided to take up the challenge of attempting to ensure podium finishes for the immensely talented but erratic Indian men's team.

The elite Champions Trophy was scheduled at the end of June - just a month and a half from when Harendra took charge.

The Indians had won their first and only silver medal in the previous edition of the same tournament in 2016, and comparisons were bound to be made.

The pressure on Harendra was telling, with the all-important Asian Games coming up after the CT at Breda - and the World Cup scheduled at the end of the year.

A silver medal at Breda - where the Indians outclassed their higher-ranked counterparts was followed by an Asian Games bronze, where a disastrous semifinal loss to Malaysia overshadowed the fluent goal fests of the pool matches.

Like many before him, the Dronacharya awardee was thrust into the shadows, in spite of an encouraging show at Odisha 2018 - but not before he left an indelible mark in the hearts and minds of Indian hockey lovers.

We take a look at Harendra Singh's five most memorable matches as coach.

#5 India vs England (CWG Women - Pool Match)

The Indians girls make history against the Olympic champions
The Indians girls make history against the Olympic champions

Rani Rampal and co. began the tournament in appalling fashion by losing to a lower-ranked Welsh side in their opener, before steadying the ship to conquer the Malaysians in their second encounter.

The 4-1 drubbing of Malaysia may well have instilled confidence in the ranks, but the Golden Girls were up against Olympic champions England in their third match, and not even the most die-hard of Indian fans would have given their side much of a chance.

Even before Harendra's chargers had settled in, Alex Danson scored with the clock showing 35 seconds and an English goal fest looked to be on the cards.

The English girls were kept at bay by Savita Punia - and by occasional counter-attacks which eventually resulted in a shot that beat Maddy Hinch in the eighth minute.

Indian celebrations were short-lived as the strike was taken from outside the D and the English were back in the Indian half in a jiffy.

Half-time ended with the English girls ahead, and a great goalline save by Sunita Lakra prevented the Rio gold-medalists from doubling the lead early in the third quarter.

Navneet Kaur got India the equalizer after some great work by Vandana, and it was even-stevens with fifteen minutes left to play. A period of intense pressure led to a penalty stroke in the 48th minute and Gurjit Kaur's shot sparked celebrations from the Indian fans in Gold Coast and elsewhere.

The English threw all they had at the Indian eves in the last ten minutes but were unable to get one past Savita.

History was made at Gold Coast as the Indians girls achieved what was hitherto deemed impossible - Harendra was right on track.

#4 India vs Australia (CWG Women - Semifinal)

The Indians went down fighting in the CWG semifinal
The Indians went down fighting in the CWG semifinal

The Aussie press knew what was coming. Reports in the Australian media stated in no uncertain terms that the Hockeyroos were about to face their first major challenge in the semifinal clash against an Indian squad that looked to be improving with every match.

Coach Paul Gaudoin had his work cut out - to resurrect a great side which had been struggling of late - and achieve the same in front of a packed home crowd at Gold Coast.

The Indians began in style and made the Aussie defenders work hard, but lost their referral as early as the fifth minute - an unfortunate occurrence, which they continue to rue to this day.

The Indians did not allow the hosts to dominate proceedings with some dogged defending and swift counter-attacks - but were unable to find the elusive opening goal.

Half-time ended in a goalless deadlock and Emily Smith and co. came hard at their rivals with a barrage of attacks in the opening minutes of the third quarter.

In the 37th minute, Grace Stewart got one past Savita and the referee signaled a goal but the Indians were aghast.

The ball looked to be dangerous, but Harendra's team had lost the right to refer and had no choice but to shrug their shoulders and continue the battle.

Skipper Rani missed a sitter at the death after the Indians had taken Savita off, and Paul Gaudoin's Aussie camp heaved a sigh of relief.

The Indian girls had matched the Hockeyroos in every department - and remained undaunted by their more fancied opponents and screaming fans.

The match was lost but the Indian girls charmed the audience with a gritty show that will be etched in the memory of Indian hockey fans for a long time to come.

#3 India vs Netherlands (WC Men - Quarterfinal)

India bow out of the Odisha World Cup
India bow out of the Odisha World Cup

The atmosphere in the Kalinga Stadium was unlike that seen for any other hockey match in conscious memory.

At stake was a place in the World Cup semifinal after a gap of 43 years, and a win had the potential to catapult India's erstwhile national game back to where it belonged.

The Indians had never beaten Holland in a World Cup ever before - but could take heart from a hard-fought draw against the Dutch at Breda earlier in the year.

The action began with a deafening roar, and soon Lalit Upadhyaya set the galleries ablaze as he cut in from the left but failed to find Simranjeet in the striking circle.

The pace was blistering, and Hertzberger's tomahawk was saved by Sreejesh, much to the delight of the home crowd. At the other end of the pitch, Harmanpreet picked Simranjeet up and the Indians earned a PC in the eleventh minute.

Akashdeep was aptly positioned to deflect Harmanpreet's flick into the net, and the Kalinga Stadium erupted with joy but settled down almost immediately as Billy Bakker found De Gues who failed to make the opportunity count.

Thierry Brinkman, however, made no such mistake and the Dutch were back on level terms a minute before the end of the first quarter.

It was anybody's game as the teams returned from the long breather and the Dutch had a PC immediately after, but Van der Weeden failed to get it right.

Tempers flared as the pressure got to the players but the Dutch seemed to be a lot calmer as compared to the Indians who looked supercharged but not clinical enough.

Mink Van der Weeden was not in the best of form but the master drag flicker could not miss many - the Indians knew that just as well, and when Amit Rohidas scampered out of his line early, Harendra's boys were left with no option but to defend a PC with one runner less.

For a man of Van der Weeden's calibre, it would have been close to scandalous if he had missed under the circumstances, and the dull thud of the ball striking the wood work sent the Kalinga Stadium into a hushed and deathly silence.

As if somewhat overawed by the situation on hand, Amit Rohidas lost his cool, and was sent off promptly, leaving the hosts with a near-impossible task against Max Caldas' boys who had begun to focus on ball possession and defence, giving little opportunity to the Indian strikers to make their way forward.

The Indians were denied a PC with seconds left on the clock, and the drooping shoulders of Harendra and co. told the tale as the home team trudged away distraught and inconsolable.

Yet, as the dust settled, hockey lovers - both in India and abroad did appreciate the riveting encounter that was played out on the pitch.

Sadly, one team had to lose, even as the Netherlands went to bag a World Cup silver - for Harendra SIngh, however, the dream lay unfulfilled yet again.

#2 India vs Pakistan ( CT Men - Pool Match)

Ramandeep scores against Pakistan in the CT opener
Ramandeep scores against Pakistan in the CT opener

Not for nothing do some of the most prestigious tournaments begin with an India-Pakistan clash - a rivalry that is, perhaps, unrivaled in the sporting world.

In an interview before the Champions Trophy, Harendra explained to Sportskeeda that he was first drawn to hockey after watching India lose to Pakistan by a 1-7 margin in the Asian Games final of 1982 - which set a spark to take the field and make amends.

In the opener at Gold Coast, a couple of months earlier, Mubashar Ali's PC equalizer at the death had stunned the Indians, and the encounter against Pakistan would be Harendra's first after being appointed chief coach of the men's side.

In spite of the fact that the once-mighty Pakistan had fallen to an unbelievable low, the thirteenth-ranked side could always be expected to be at their very best against their arch-rivals - and kept their composure at Breda, to ensure that the first quarter ended with no damage done.

It took a moment of brilliance from comeback-man Ramandeep Singh to find the net five minutes from the lemon break - and the Indians referred wisely to have a goal disallowed early in the third quarter with the Men in Green firing on all cylinders.

The Pakistanis were looking dangerous and earned their first PC just before the end of the third quarter but were thwarted by Amit Rohidas, who put his body on the line to deny danger-man Mubashar Ali.

With time running out, Roelant Oltmans' boys were forced to commit men forward, which helped Dilpreet add to the tally with seven minutes left to play.

Mandeep Singh sealed the deal soon after, but Lalit was just as keen to get his name on the score sheet and scored one just as the hooter sounded.

The 4-0 score line sounded the warning bells to India's rivals at Breda and proved to be a glorious beginning to Harendra's newest chapter with the men's side.

#1 India vs Australia (CT Men - Final)

India almost get the better of the Aussies at Breda
India almost get the better of the Aussies at Breda

The Indians beat Olympic champions Argentina a day after disposing of Pakistan to celebrate Sardar Singh's 300th international - and went on to hold Belgium and Holland thanks to the heroics of Sreejesh.

It was the last edition of the historic Champions Trophy and the Indians had lined up against a formidable Australian side in the final - hoping to win their first gold of the competition which began in 1978.

The Indians had lost the services of Ramandeep Singh after the Pakistan match and were effectively a man short for the rest of the tournament.

Colin Batch's champions began as they always do - by numbing the opposition with a flurry of early attacks which the Indians survived, and slowly got going with forays of their own which took the kookaburras by surprise.

Sreejesh, who had a great tournament, faced up to Blake Govers whose drag flick seemed to catch the Indian goalkeeper unawares, and Australia took the lead midway through the second quarter.

The veteran custodian, who went on to win the Goalkeeper of the Tournament award, told Sportskeeda after the tournament that Govers had fired in a slow flick - deliberately or otherwise - which foxed him completely.

The World Champions held the advantage at half-time, but India were looking good enough to equalize - and eventually did - thanks to Vivek Sagar who scored in the 41st minute.

Mandeep very nearly put his side ahead - and the Indians looked the better team as they pressed hard and deep, only to be denied by Tyler Lovell who had a dream match in front of goal.

It was Lovell who would prove to be the difference once more, as Harendra's brave bunch failed to outdo the Aussie goalkeeper in the fateful shootout - much like Oltmans' Indian side in the London 2016 final.

Hockey experts around the world have stated emphatically that it was the Indians who deserved to win the Breda final - and that the Australians were a trifle lucky on the day.

What is, indeed, noteworthy is that Harendra Singh almost got the better of the mighty Australians, as coach of both the men's and women's sides, in addition to guiding the colts to Junior World Cup glory by getting past the Aussies and the Belgians too.

Gold for India, at Breda, could well have altered the fortunes of the men's team in no small measure, and also cemented the position of their beloved mentor for a long time to come.

It was a case of so near, yet so far, for the umpteenth time, for Indian hockey - and Harendra Singh.

Edited by Zaid Khan
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