‘’If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’’
Even if all of us are not aware of the poem from which this line is quoted, the philosophy contained in it is unlikely to escape any of us. This is life laid bare in its truest essence: its permanent transience accentuated so economically and so beautifully with the use of two common, yet quintessential metaphors.
1st December 1982. Field hockey final of IX Asian Games between India and Pakistan: An unanticipated catastrophe in the form of a 7-1 thrashing to Pakistan denied India their coveted gold medal and brought the axe down on the career of Mir Ranjan Negi—India’s ‘doomed’ goalkeeper in that game, who was steadfastly branded as a ‘villain’ and therefore, relegated to the chambers of desolation for several years to come.
Cut to 3rd August 2002. Belle Vue Hockey Centre, Manchester: The same man who had experienced the bitterest winter of his life in front of 25,000 odd spectators—including luminaries like Rajiv Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan, MGR and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—at the National Stadium, Delhi twenty years ago, etched his name in history by leading the Indian women’s hockey team to its first ever gold at the Commonwealth Games. The setting had changed and so had the role, but the scars that were inflicted on him as a player in 1982 lived on with him till he found his redemption as a coach in 2002. Such was the impact of the triumph—not just a personal one for Negi but also for the Indian women’s team at large—that it led to the conception of a film based on it and had Shah Rukh Khan essaying the role of the coach. Thus, when ‘Chak de! India’ was released in August 2007, Kabir Khan—the name of Shah Rukh’s character in the film—became at once synonymous with Negi and grew into an extension of his identity—something he has thoroughly relished ever since.
Negi, now an assistant commissioner in the Calcutta Customs, was entrusted with the responsibility of coaching the Kolkata Police Hockey team by Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar a couple of months ago. On the morning of October 2—just a few hours before his departure for Mumbai—the former Indian goalkeeper spoke exclusively to our correspondent Ritam Basu about India’s shock defeat against Malaysia in the semi-final of the Asian Games, the need for Hockey India to shun its obsession for ‘’white-skinned’’ coaches, why men’s coach Harendra Singh deserves a long rope, the resurgence of the women’s team of late, India’s chances in the forthcoming FIH World Cup et al during a two-hour candid conversation at his residence.
Here are the excerpts:-
Q: After scoring a barrage of goals in the group stage, why do you think the Indian team failed to defeat a much lower-ranked Malaysian side in the semi-final of the Asian Games?
Negi: It’s true that we scored 76 goals en route the semi-final, but against Malaysia—a side that has troubled us quite often in recent times—we should have played with some caution. I thought the boys played erratically against Malaysia; it was unbridled flamboyance. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve won by twenty goals or by just one goal when you win a game. What really cost us the game was the number of missed traps and unforced errors that we made—something that is not acceptable when you are playing the semi-final of such a big event.
Q: Was complacency a major factor that accounted for India’s loss in that game?
Negi: It appeared to be so. The senior players like Sardara (Singh) and Rupinder (Pal Singh) should have shouldered more responsibility. We allowed Malaysia way too many opportunities to come back into the game. They were looking to score mostly from counter-attacks, something which we could have avoided by employing zonal marking and keeping the flanks covered after we were reduced to nine men.
Q: After the bronze medal match between India and Pakistan—which India won 2-1—Pakistan coach Roelant Oltmans attributed India’s choking streak in the knockout stages of big tournaments to their ‘’problem of conceding late goals’’. How, in your opinion, can India overcome this problem?
Negi: The problem that you’re talking about has been a long-term malady in Indian hockey. In fact, all the Asian teams suffer from the same disease. It’s a matter of holding your nerves and not panic in the final few moments of the game, which I have seen the European teams do much better compared to the Asian teams. I think it’s high time Hockey India sought the services of a sports psychologist in a bid to address the team’s recurrent failures in high-pressure games. At times it seems as if the boys get weighed down by the pressure of such matches. What amuses me is that some of the players feel that taking the help of a sports psychologist would imply that they are suffering from mental issues and cannot cope with depression! ‘’Psychologist ka hamein kya zaroorat hai? Hum thodi mansik bimari se guzar rahe hai!’’, is what they would say (laughs). You can hardly dream of ushering in any change when such regressive mentality prevails among the players.
Q: Indian coach Harendra Singh has come under the scanner following the Asiad debacle. Do you think he deserves a longer rope, given his impressive managerial CV and the fact that he was handed the job only a couple of months prior to the Asiad?
Negi: Harendra is a very smart manager. His commitment and dedication to the job are unquestionable. He also shares a good rapport with many of the boys in the team. If anyone has to be snubbed from the system, it should be the High-Performance director David John. He has had a bad influence on the team ever since he stepped into his role. His bias against some of the senior players is an impediment to fair selection. As long as he remains with the team, he will continue to have a negative influence on the players.
Q: As many as seven players from the side that played in the Asian Games have been dropped for the upcoming Asian Champions Trophy. What are your views on this development?
Negi: This is the way things work in Indian hockey (guffaws)! Such frequent chopping and changing of players do more harm than good to the cause of building a consistent unit. Having said that, I think it’s good in a way that some of the seniors like SV Sunil and Rupinder have been rested. These two players have shouldered a lot of workload in recent times. Plus, there are times when you take your place for granted in the team and then it becomes necessary for you to take some time off the game and introspect on your errors so that you are able to come back with a fresh mindset. I am sure both Sunil and Rupinder will be recalled to the side for the World Cup and will be key to India’s plans in the tournament.
Q: Sardara Singh announced his retirement from international hockey last month. Did the decision come at the right time?
Negi: I think so. He was not quite at his best in his last few assignments and also seemed to be lacking in speed. You cannot question his greatness, but when you are not able to deliver your 100% for the team, it’s always advisable to move on. I am really impressed with the way Chinglensana Singh is playing nowadays. I think it’s not long before he fills in the void left behind by Sardara.
Q: Do you think defence will be a big worry for India going into the World Cup?
Negi: Our defence looks very fragile at the moment. We weren’t really tested in the group stages of the Asian Games, but when it required our defence to step up in the semi-final, we faltered horribly. I am not sure what formation the management is going to employ in the World Cup but it’s imperative that Rupinder stays fit and lends some stability to the back line. Besides, I also expect Harmanpreet and Kothajit to raise their game in the upcoming matches.
Q: What is your assessment of the youth development system in Indian hockey at present?
Negi: I am very excited about the crop of young players coming through. They have all made the senior team by virtue of doing well at the youth level. Both the men’s and women’s teams will be participating in the Youth Olympics in a week’s time and I wish them all the best for that. All efforts should be focused on enhancing grassroots development, because it is ultimately the youth teams that provide the supply line for the senior side.
Q: Manpreet Singh has been made the captain of India in place of PR Sreejesh for the Asian Champions Trophy. How do you view this change in captaincy?
Negi: It shouldn’t make much of a difference, because in field hockey, unlike in cricket, the role of a captain is limited to just sporting the armband. Let me admit first of all that I am a big fan of Sreejesh! He has proven his worth as a match-winner time and again, and even in the Asiad semi-final against Malaysia he made three good saves. In spite of that, if you pass the buck for the team’s defeat entirely to the goalkeeper, it’s very unfair. He is, after all, a human being and every human being makes mistakes. I hope that the federation doesn’t mete out injustice to him, for he is still miles ahead of the other goalkeepers in the country.
Q: Apart from Sreejesh, which other goalkeepers do you enjoy watching?
Negi: I really enjoy watching Japp Stockman of the Netherlands. He has been the world’s best goalkeeper for many years now and has on so many occasions in the past won his side a game almost single-handedly. Australia’s Andrew Charter and Germany’s Nicolas Jacobi are also among the best. In terms of quality, Sreejesh—if not equal—is certainly not too far behind them.
Q: Do you think that the Indian hockey administration is more transparent today vis-à-vis your own playing days?
Negi: I think there is more transparency in the system today simply because of the fact that the game is much widely followed nowadays. Even a ten-year-old will tell you today that lack of speed led to Sardara’s exclusion from the Commonwealth Games squad. Such wide promotion of the sport has ensured that there is no place for corrupt office-bearers in the system.
Q: The women’s team has shown a lot of improvement of late...
Negi: Absolutely! I think a lot of credit for this resurgence of the women’s team should go to Harendra. Only last year did our women’s team perform miserably at the Hockey World League, but within a year the team made an unexpected progress under Harendra. They won the Asia Cup late last year, and since then their graph has just gone up and up. The girls really blossomed under Harendra’s stewardship and they must surely be missing his services at the moment. It happened so often when the team was training at Patiala that everybody would be plagued by mosquito bites, and had anybody else been there in Harendra’s place, he would have quit his job as soon as he had taken it. But Harendra is made from a different mould; he has got nerves of steel. He spent hours analysing the video clips of the playing styles of the opposition teams and formulating tactics based on his observations.
Talking about the individual players, Rani Rampal is a star in her own right, but the player who has caught my attention the most is Gurjit (Kaur), the drag-flicker. She is a star in the making.
Q: Now that the Indian women’s team is set to be included in the TOP (Target Olympic Podium) Scheme...how big an incentive is it going to be for the team leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Negi: It’s a very encouraging development. The men’s team, I believe, is already included in the scheme and considering the great progress that the girls have made in the last one year or so, this has come as a timely reward.
Q: The last question. Where do you expect India to finish in the World Cup?
Negi: I am a very positive person. Despite all the criticism, I expect India to put up a good show. Home advantage will be a big boost to India’s performance in the tournament. When you play in front of 30,000 people cheering on, ‘’India! India!’’ it gives you goosebumps. India is placed in Pool C alongside Belgium, Canada and South Africa, so you can call it a fairly easy draw. Belgium has done quite well over the last few years, but I see India making the knockouts without much difficulty. Once they make the knockouts, it will all depend upon who plays well on a particular day. There’s only one suggestion that I would make to Harendra: instead of burdening yourself with all the responsibility, why don’t you invite some of the former players like Dhanraj (Pillay), or me, for example, to share some of the workload and take some pressure off your shoulders? At the end of the day, we are all driven by the same dream—to see India lift the World Cup and the crowds shouting in unison, ‘’Chak de! India!’’