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Coach saga: Lessons not learned as Hockey India does a hasty cut-and-paste from within system yet again

  • A review of what transpired during Harendra Singh and Sjoerd Marijne's appointments last year, the present swap and possible repercussions.
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Modified 01 May 2018, 20:47 IST

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The Indian women's team is paying the price for changes in the men's team

The speculation was rife for well over a week that alterations were imminent at the helm of the Indian men's hockey team. It all started with a cosmic change with veteran goalkeeper Sreejesh taking over the captaincy from midfielder Manpreet Singh. This, however, was insufficient to quench the thirst of the critics who wanted more heads to roll in the wake of what they described as India's "poor" showing in the Commonwealth Games.

Unrealistic expectations from critics?

Those baying for blood chose to conveniently forget that not so long ago, Indian hockey was languishing on the verge of absolute disaster.

A decade ago, the Indian men, who have more Olympic gold medals than any other team in history, failed to even qualify for the Beijing Games. There was minimal improvement four years on when the team qualified for the London Olympics but finished last.

A rapid ascent followed when Dutchman Roelant Oltmans took over the reins post the London Olympics as high-performance director and then as coach of the side. India climbed to the sixth position in the FIH rankings much to the delight of hockey fans who had endured years of despair.

Be ambitious but not avaricious is an old adage that seems to define those currently clamouring for change with expectations that are unrealistic. Indeed, after the coach swap drama, the Indian men's hockey team may be in real danger of slipping backwards rather than rising up. Even the best of coaches takes a while to settle in, but Harendra Singh cannot afford to do so with vital tournaments scheduled in quick succession.

Unwarranted changes in Indian's women's team

Amidst the din, let us spare a thought for the Indian women's team. The developments in question seem to focus purely on the recent performances and future prospects of the Indian men's team. Discussions revolve purely around the Azlan Shah experiment, the Gold Coast debacle, the upcoming Champions Trophy, and the Asian Games which is the ticket to the Tokyo Olympics. The focus, primarily, is on the men with the aims and aspirations of the women's team being sidelined.

Sjoerd Marijne came to India as coach of the women's side and took over from Neil Hawgood. Marijne's performance in the above role may not have been spectacular, but it was not disastrous either. In short, the Indian women's team did not warrant a change of coach last year.

Under Harendra Singh too, the Indian women performed creditably, winning the Asia Cup and finishing fourth in the Commonwealth Games. Surely no change was warranted now as well. Both times, the Indian women's team had to lose their coach only to facilitate a change in the men's set-up.

Hockey India's stance of giving precedence to the men's team over the women's is quite evident and hardly desirable. The changes at the top have not been made keeping in mind the women's team schedule. A change of coach on the eve of a tournament can prove to be disastrous for the best of teams.

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Consider the case of Olympic champions Argentina. Former Argentinian coach Carlos Retegui, who has been credited with the team's rapid rise, decided to call it a day on the eve of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Argentina fared badly in the tournament, going down to Malaysia 2-1, splitting points with England, and missing out on a final place.

The Indian women have 12 days to prepare for the Asian Champions Trophy under the tutelage of a new coach. Will the federation bosses be forgiving if the team fail to play to their potential?

Changes from within the system aimed at saving time

Hockey India sources have told Sportskeeda that post the Roelant Oltmans sacking episode, the Sports Ministry had made it clear that under no circumstances should the team be sent to a tournament without a chief coach. The Asia Cup was scheduled a month from then and a coach had to found before the start of the Dhaka tournament.

As per our sources, at least three worthy applicants with solid experience in coaching a national men's side had sent their applications. Hiring a foreign coach, however, is a long process. Prior to handing out elaborate contracts (which is done by the Sports Ministry), the coaches in question send in their quotes based on which salaries are finalized.

The luxury of such a time-consuming exercise was not available and therefore the only option was to hire a coach from within the system. Sjoerd Marijne, coach of the Indian women's team, was appointed as the men's coach and Harendra Singh, who had achieved great success with the junior boys, was designated as coach of the women's team.

History repeats itself yet again

As coach of the men's team, Marijne had a decent run, winning the Asia Cup followed by the bronze in the Hockey World League last year. He had a long-term vision for Indian hockey and decided to give an opportunity to the youngsters with a view to prepare a team for the future. Hockey India too seemingly was in sync with the same.

Sjoerd Marijne's own words underline the fact that he truly believed he was on the right path. "We won the Asia Cup with dominating hockey. In the Hockey World League, we showed that we can beat world class teams and with our New Zealand tour we made another step in our process to win the Asian games and the World Cup." 

"Unfortunately, in the Commonwealth Games we didn't perform the way we expected but still we had good statistics." 

India's inability to win a medal drew flak from several quarters and the knives were out yet again.

Yet again, the Indian women have been forced into losing their coach at the eleventh hour ahead of a tough Asian Champions Trophy. Hockey India has decided once again to recruit a coach from within the system by doing a swap, which, in many ways, defies logic. Have the lessons still not been learned?

The questions are endless. Even if a coach had to be recruited from within the system, Marijne could have continued with the women's team and Harendra could well have taken charge of the men last September.

If Harendra was considered unsuitable to coach the men's side just six months ago, what sudden change has prompted Hockey India to change their stance? Also, if Marijne has been deemed incapable of handling the men's team, how and why is he being transferred to his prior role with the women?

The men and women have their task cut out in a year of reckoning for Indian hockey and one hopes that the excessive pressure to perform or perish does not blunt the team's competitive edge. Indian hockey is at a crossroads once again and Sjoerd Marijne and Harendra Singh will have to hold the rudder firm in choppy waters with an aim to do well in their respective World Cups and qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

Published 01 May 2018, 20:47 IST
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