When Gregg Clark first saw Mandeep Singh,he didn’t know what to expect from the untested youngster. Not succumbing to the temptation to bench him,Clark trusted his lieutenant Baljit Singh Saini’s instincts. And Mandeep didn’t disappoint. He,in fact,turned out to be Clark’s trump card in the Hockey India League (HIL).
It would be fair to say that the rapport Clark and Saini shared propelled Rhinos to the unprecedented success in the inaugural edition of the HIL. The duo is reunited once again after Clark was appointed as coach of the junior national team on Sunday.
It is no secret that the decision to appoint Clark has been taken because of his success with Rhinos and the fact that he and Saini are close friends. From having played against each other in several tournaments at the peak of their careers,including the 1996 Olympics,to sharing rooms during the course of the HIL,Clark and Saini’s association goes back a long way and they have been complimenting each other well. With the junior team,like at Rhinos,Saini is expected to be entrusted with the responsibility to spot talented youngsters while the onus to groom them will be on Clark,who is adept with the technical and psychological aspects of the game. Youngsters from Rhinos like Amit Rohidas,Manpreet Singh and Kothajit Singh,who are also a part of the junior squad,have benefited a lot under Clark.
The 42-year-old from Durban,a city which incidentally has the largest Indian population outside India,has had a decent stint as the coach of the South African team,leading them to two Olympic Games (2008 and 2012). It will be interesting to see how well he adjusts in a complex Indian hockey environment. Many expect him to fit in smoothly in the Indian way of functioning,considering he has dealt with the pressures posed by the complicated quota system back home that forces the national team to have four players of colour at all times.
But the challenge he faces here is immense. Clark has less than eight months to put together a team that makes the semifinals of the junior World Cup at least. The tournament will be held in New Delhi in December. But there’s a sudden wave of optimism that the objective might be achieved after all. If the HIL is any kind of a parameter,one can realise where that hope stems from.
(Mihir is a senior correspondent based in Mumbai)