Contrary to expectations, India failed to bring home silverware from Gold Coast a month ago. In the medal matches against New Zealand and England, Manpreet Singh and his boys came agonizingly close to scoring multiple times, hovering in and around the opposition circle.
Crosses with quality from both flanks were zipped in at regular intervals and came thick and fast. The strikers were aptly positioned too, lurking in front of the goalmouth and around, waiting to latch on and deflect the ball into the netting. Providence, it seemed, was not on India's side as the ball struck the upright twice in the semifinal, and seemed to meander centimeters away from the outstretched sticks with an open goal lying tantalizingly close in the bronze medal match.
Sport can sometimes be cruel, as India hockey fans acknowledged, collectively shaking their heads in disbelief. Could they dare to dream big again, with three vital tournaments lined up this calendar year? Surely, India would need a messiah now, they opined, who could resurrect the team, reinfuse confidence, and pave a winning path forward.
Man of the moment, on the threshold of history
Precious metals need to be smelted, forged, and refined at temperatures that exceed a thousand degrees to be extracted and attain value as the world's most prized commodities. Men of action who matter, and those that can effect change under adverse circumstances and against the tide rise similarly from the ashes, overcoming hurt, humiliation, and ridicule to challenge the odds and scale new heights.
Never before has the chorus been so unanimous, with veteran and current players, former coaches, fans, and sports lovers, voicing in unison, their conviction that only one individual in the entire nation has the experience, the credentials, the determination, and the will, to put Indian hockey back on track and catapult the game to the absolute summit.
The only reason the Indian hockey fraternity hesitates to celebrate too early is that they feel Harendra Singh lacks time to implement the changes that are required in order to make a difference. The man himself disagrees, however, and emphasizes that he has been a part of Indian hockey for long enough and needs no time whatsoever to move ahead and upwards.
This Indian team, he says, is playing way below its potential and can soon be the best in the world. The technical aspects, he says, are being ironed out. The Indian strikers are learning how to be effective in the circle, the PC specialists are learning the variations, and the shortcomings at Gold Coast can be corrected.
Can India challenge the top four?
Arguably the greatest hockey coach in modern times, Ric Charlesworth was entrusted with the job of pulling Indian hockey back from the edge of a precipice a decade ago. Since then, one Spaniard, two Australians, and three Dutchmen have visited our shores in an attempt to further that process.
Each of them had some measure of success in their endeavors. The Indian team clawed their way back from the brink and won two Commonwealth Games silver medals, one under Brasa and the other under Terry Walsh. India won silver at the London Champions Trophy with Oltmans at the helm, and an Asia Cup gold and a World League bronze with fellow Dutchman, Waltherus (Sjoerd) Marijne.
Few would have expected a decade ago that India would break into the elite top six. Surely, that is reason enough to exult and celebrate?
'No,' says Harendra Singh. Three years is a long time to be stuck at the sixth rung and it is time for the team to climb at least a couple of rungs. The current squad, he feels, has the potential to be the top-ranked team in the world.
Where does the confidence stem from? How can a team which failed to outplay those lower in the rankings (at Gold Coast), now take on the top four in the world? Can India, really win gold this year?
Sportskeeda caught up with the new coach of the Indian men's team in an effort to understand his background, vision, and philosophy and what he foresees as the future of Indian hockey.
Bihari insults, Asiad final, and the SRK connection
Sportskeeda: Harendra jee, tell us something about your childhood. How and when did you decide to pursue hockey as a career?
Harendra Singh: It all started with a rather unpleasant experience. A boy threw my hockey stick away and told me that Biharis cannot play hockey. That was a spark which set things off. When India lost 1-7 to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games final (in Delhi), being the son of an army man, I was unable to come to terms with how we could lose in such a manner. I didn't know much about hockey then but the zeal had arisen and the spark was ignited following the match.
There were a lot of good hockey players in my school including Olympian, Vineet Kumar. Football was also popular in school and I had to choose between the two. I chose hockey.
Sportskeeda: Since you mentioned the 1982 Asian Games final, there have been a lot of comparisons made between you and Kabir Khan (the character played by Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De) although the film was based around the life of MK Kaushik and had similarities to goalkeeper Negi's life. How do you perceive these comparisons?
Harendra Singh: Shah Rukh Khan has depicted the character extremely well, but there is a deeper connection with me. Shah Rukh jee may not remember but we have played hockey together near the Hanuman Mandir at Connaught Place (in Delhi). It is wonderful indeed that he acted in a film related to hockey. The film inspired a lot of hockey players and also other sportsmen.
The film is a lesson on how to build a team and also focusses on the challenges which sportsmen and women face in India. Corporate houses also learned how to build corporate teams via the movie. In reality, however, the film is a depiction of the life of Kaushik bhaisaab and not me or anyone else.
Sportskeeda: Who were the players you looked up to the most and who were the ones who influenced you?
Harendra Singh: I always wanted to be a left-out, as I admired the two biggest names in hockey back then - Zafar Iqbal and Mohammed Shahid. My teacher then told me that I had a good build and height and would excel as a defender.
Surjit Singh Randhawa was idolized by hundreds of fans who thronged the roads to watch him as he passed by. He had an amazing personality with regard to his manner of speech and gait and I wanted to be a full-back and emulate him. While he was playing for Punjab Police in a final in 1983, I gathered up the courage to request him his hockey stick, and much to my surprise, he readily consented.
I could not play with it as it was very heavy (a 28-ounce stick) but I learned to dribble with that stick. When I started playing, I idolized Dhanraj Pillay and he is one player who influenced my life the most.
Narinder Batra has transformed hockey in India
Sportskeeda: Did you have apprehensions about pursuing hockey as a career, given that it was not very lucrative back then?
Harendra Singh: I was an adamant child and was determined to play hockey. There was not a lot of money in hockey back then, but ever since Narinder Batra took over the reins of Indian hockey, all that changed. He instilled a sense of professionalism in the system and Hockey India is known worldwide for being a model sports body.
Abhinav Bindra himself has stated that Hockey India is one of the most professional sports organizations in the country. Vision, planning, and execution are the three cornerstones for the success of hockey in India and Narinder Batra's work has ensured that scores of youngsters today want to pursue hockey as a career.
Hockey India ensures that the remuneration is good enough and job security is adequate when one chooses the game at the highest level.
Race against time? No, says Harendra Singh
Sportskeeda: Do you feel you have time to effect changes? How high are you setting your aims?
Harendra Singh: I have worked with 41 out of the 48 players in the camp at some point or the other and I am totally familiar with the setup in Bangalore. I do not need time as I am familiar with the language and the culture.
India can break into the top 4. I feel we can be No.1 too. If I do not attempt to scale Everest, I will never know what my limitations are, or how far I am capable of going. Considering the potential this team have, I feel we can go much further. There is no pressure on me whatsoever. If one pursues a goal with single-minded determination, there is virtually nothing that is impossible.
Sportsmen should never limit their aspirations. No one could have predicted that Argentina would win the 2016 Olympic gold at Rio. Once a team breaks into the top 10, it can then challenge all the others. Mental strength, planning, and strategy then take precedence which produces results.
A lot of ups and downs happen in hockey and India is one of the best teams in the world who can give every side a run for their money.
Media challenges us to do better
Sportskeeda: In the CWG, the Indian team were derided by the media for their failure to match their previous performance. It was the same with the girls at the Asian Champions Trophy. You will be expected to match India's silver-winning performance in the Champions Trophy. What are your thoughts?
Harendra Singh: The media opens up a challenge for us which is a good thing. We should take the same in a positive sense. It reminds us of our responsibilities and what the demands of the fans are. If I ignore these headlines and believe that whatever I am dishing out is great, it would be delusional.
The expectations of society are mirrored by the media. If one takes these things negatively, one can never progress. Challenges are always welcome in sport and the media throws challenges at us. The person who is the target of the challenge should accept the same instead of reaching the conclusion that the media is against him or her.
A man rises in life when he has an adequate number of critics.
Sportskeeda: You seemed angry and upset when the girls conceded quite a few goals to England in the bronze-medal match at Gold Coast. How do you cope with setbacks and motivate yourself to carry on?
Harendra Singh: When I am extremely despondent, I watch the entire match again and replay it in my mind to help comprehend where I made a mistake. I then have to assess whether the errors in question were technical, tactical, or psychological. If the latter is the case, I then need to have a one-on-one session with the player who erred.
Techincal errors can be sorted out by organizing a camp. If the shortcoming was tactical, the coaches need to sit and discuss what can be done.
When I am troubled, I need solitude and find comfort in Jagjit Singh's ghazals.
The coaching staff is a joint unit: Ciriello will help us with big-match expertise
Sportskeeda: You have given India gold in the Junior World Cup. If the seniors do well in the Champions Trophy, Asian Games, and World Cup, your name will go down in history as one of the best coaches ever. Do you see that happening?
Harendra Singh: The primary focus is on the coach, but in the end, it is a team effort. I have support from Chris Ciriello (Analytical Coach), Robin Arkell (Scientific Advisor), David McDonald (Physiotherapist), Jugraj Singh (Assistant Coach) Bharat Chettri (Goalkeeping Coach) and Arup Naskar (masseur).
When a war is won, it is the General who gets the accolades. I feel that the troops and the ammunition are just as important. I have performed extremely well over the last 4 to 5 years so the entire country says that Harendra Singh will now deliver, as he has been appointed. This is something very positive and the players understand that as well.
The dream has got to be converted into reality and with the kind of team composition and planning we have, it is definitely possible. I am trying to establish an environment in the team, where the players in the future will continue to win irrespective of who the coach is. Everyone has to be on the same page.
Ciriello has won the Olympics, the World Cup, and the Champions Trophy more than once and knows what it takes to win. It is important to know how a team prepares for big events.
A player like Ciriello has done more than just scoring off drag flicks. He has expertise in passing, defending, dribbling, and scoring field goals. I have given responsibilities and freedom to all the coaches including Jugraj Singh and Bharat Chettri. If you watch us practice, there is no difference between the chief coach and the assistants. We are all working in tandem for the betterment of the team.