'God help Indian hockey' - experts target Hockey India as Harendra Singh is moved yet again  

Harendra's sacking has drawn sharp criticism from the hockey fraternity
Harendra's sacking has drawn sharp criticism from the hockey fraternity
Subhashish Majumdar

Exactly seven months and nine days after his appointment as Head Coach of the Indian senior men's hockey team, Harendra Singh has been relieved of his duties - the reason?

A "disappointing 2018" prompted the move according to a statement issued by Hockey India, the sports governing body, who have now entrusted Harendra with the task of coaching the juniors with an eye on the future.

Incidentally, 2018 was the year when the Indians moved up to the fifth position in the world (their best-ever slot since the ranking system was introduced by the FIH).

Under the captaincy of Sreejesh, the Indians stunned their detractors by winning silver in the prestigious Champions Trophy where they beat Argentina, drew with Belgium and the Netherlands, and very nearly upset Australia in the final.

What Harendra's boys failed to do, however, was to gain a direct ticket to Tokyo 2020 by succumbing to Malaysia in the Asian Games semifinal, as a result of which the team will now have to play the Olympic qualifiers via the Hockey Series Finals, as Hockey India opted to not be a part of the Pro League which features every other top-ranked team in the world.

At the Asian Champions Trophy, the Indians shared the gold medal with Pakistan after the finals were washed out due to heavy rains, and the performance of Manpreet and co. at the World Cup can hardly be termed disheartening, as the Indians topped their pool ahead of eventual gold-medalists Belgium but went down fighting to a superior Dutch side.

Former India goalkeeper Ashish Ballal feels Harendra's removal as Head Coach was uncalled for given the overall performance of the team.

"It is sad that after a fair show, we sack the coach. We have had almost 15 years of foreign coaches, and no coach has managed to get the Indians up to the 5th slot in the FIH rankings - that is something we achieved under Harendra's tenure," said Ballal to Sportskeeda.

Indian vs Foreign coaches - back to square one?

Prior to the Athens Olympics in 2004, the now-defunct Indian Hockey Federation decided to appoint German national, Gerhard Rach as Chief Coach of the Indian men.

Distraught and disillusioned with the state of affairs, Rach decided to call it a day soon after the Champions Trophy the same year.

When India failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, coach Joaquim Carvalho decided to step aside and the trend of appointing foreign coaches continued unabated for a decade until Harendra was given the job last year.

With Harendra's removal, things have indeed come a full circle - so what does Rach think of HI's decision to sack Harendra Singh?

The German who had worked with Harendra during his stint in India told Sportskeeda that the latest development is proof enough that little has changed in Indian hockey.

"Harendra was good. He thinks the European way and knows Indian culture. I had been living in Asia for a long time, but I still had problems with the culture. Every new coach will need time and never understand (the culture) for he will be fired by the time he does so - poor players."

Dutch coach Max Caldas was quick to point out that Germany too failed to make it to the World Cup semifinals but the repercussions for the coaching staff were hardly as severe. The Argentinian who has been with the Dutch men's side since 2014 lamented the frequent change of coaches in India but also stated that the decision did not surprise him.

"Well, for starters - Germany did not make it to the semifinals. It (Harendra's sacking) does not really surprise me, to be honest. It is a pity and I wonder how it happens every single time. Getting a job, knowing that one can be fired at any time is not that nice."

So what drives foreign coaches to apply for the India job in spite of the insecurities that lie ahead?

"A great hockey country, players with great skill and commitment, an FT program and a good salary (I think)", said Caldas to Sportskeeda.

The obsession of aiming for podium finishes in every competition (in spite of the fact that the Indian men have not made it to an Olympic semifinal for close to four decades), and handing out swift punishments for failing to do so is just as bizarre as the constant shifting of roles and responsibilities.

Junior men to senior women to senior men - and back!!

In 2014, Harendra Singh took over the mantle of coaching the Indian juniors and mentored them all the way to a Junior World Cup gold in 2016.

In September 2017, Harendra Singh replaced Sjoerd Marijne as coach of the Indian senior women's side after the Dutchman was given charge of the men's side. In May last year, Harendra was asked to take on the responsibility of handling the senior men - and quite inexplicably, he will now be back with the Indian juniors yet again.

The young Indian team which played the Odisha World Cup (without the experienced Ramandeep Singh and SV Sunil who were both nursing injuries) could have been molded by Harendra at the senior level, as quite a few of them were gold medalists from the Junior World Cup - if, indeed, the focus was on building a team for the future.

Logic is, apparently, an ingredient that seems to be quite sparse (at least to the casual onlooker), as far as HI's never-ending coaching changes are concerned, which led Ashish Ballal to comment that Indian hockey was, perhaps, in need of divine intervention.

The Asian Games gold medalist of 1998, however, did not mince words when it came to who he thought should be held responsible for the team's woes, and believes firmly that the Indians lost to a better side in the World Cup quarterfinal.

"God help Indian hockey. A regressive move - are other teams like Germany, England, and Argentina changing coaches due to poor performances?"

"Generally, the CEO gets fired and the High-Performance Director should be fired for poor performance, but I thought the performance was not bad. We lost to a team that was technically better and also higher-ranked. This is just an ego issue."

The travails continue for India's most experienced coach

Indeed, the fate of Jude Felix who was doing an admirable job with the Indian juniors now hangs in the balance as a game of musical chairs is played out.

For Harendra Singh, however, this is just another chapter in a series of travails. The veteran coach had been associated with the senior men's team as far back as the Sydney Olympics in 2000 (as an assistant to V Bhaskaran).

Harendra coached the Indians in the 2006 Asian Games and World Cup, and again in the 2010 Asian Games, World Cup, and Commonwealth Games (as an assistant to Jose Brasa).

No coach - Indian or foreign, has spent as much time assisting the growth of Indian hockey, as Harendra has, and as many in the past have experienced as well, it is quite impossible to keep the country's only FIH-certified coach out of the action for a long time.

The fiercely passionate and ever-resilient Harendra has managed to ride the waves and overcome the turbulence that has been an integral part of Indian hockey for as long as one can recall - for those who know him well, the journey is far from complete.

Edited by Arvind Sriram
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