Updated: August 6, 2021 8:25:46 am
If I die tomorrow, I will die a happy man at peace with myself. I have seen Indian hockey get an Olympic medal, what more can I want? I remember the pain of Sydney 2000 when we lost to unfancied Poland in the dying seconds and lost out on the medal.
I was the assistant coach and remember the tears in the changing room. Dhanraj Pillai, Jude Menezes, the goalkeeper who couldn’t forget the thud sound of the ball crashing into the board behind him for years to come, Dilip Tirkey, Ramandeep Singh, Baljit Saini, Mukesh Kumar — everyone was broken.
We had the chance to change the face of Indian hockey but it was not to be. It was our mistake that we couldn’t control those last 90 seconds. It’s a great game where everything can change in seconds. Like life. And 21 years later, this great triumph in Tokyo, has done its bit to soften that Sydney blow.
I teared up at the final whistle in Tokyo and once again, they are rolling down my cheeks as I write this. But these are tears of joy: Kitne saal se andar dabaa ke rakha tha inko, ab main inhe behne doonga (it has been suppressed for so many years, now will let them flow). I am sure it’s not just me but the sentiment of many Indians. Cricket might be in our minds but hockey is in our dil. That first love will never be forgotten.
We are so grateful that this generation of players didn’t repeat that old mistake in the last few seconds. Goalkeeper Sreejesh became a wall. This is an apt time to salute the sacrifices of these players — Olympic medals don’t come easily.
I remember Sreejesh sobbing, his head buried in me during my time as the junior team’s coach. It was his initial days at the camp. He had come on the first day without the goalkeeper’s pads. As time wore on, people started to question his presence and would even tell on his face that he was there in the team only because of me. “Harendra ka ladka”, they called him. I remember telling him not to worry, the same people will one day touch your feet.
Another Sreejesh memory pops up. His little daughter was sick at home along with an elder. He told me that there was a problem in the family and he needed to go home. We were able to play a big tournament. I told him he could go, of course, but this is the moment he had been sweating for, for years. This is his chance to show what he is made of. He played, starred, and hasn’t looked back since.
It gave me great happiness when he called me from Tokyo, minutes after winning, even before he spoke to his wife and parents. This is just to give you a glimpse about the beautiful coach-player relationship. We go through good and bad times together. The players don’t celebrate festivals at home; we are usually at some camp or tournament, eating our daal-roti together. Simple life, great times, small and big sacrifices. And lots of hard work.
Take Harmandeep Singh, our star attacker. There was a time when he was young and could not always keep the ball down while striking hard and it would be called foul by the referee. He worked his skin off to get close to perfection. A smile escapes when I see him now — the ball flies inch-perfect from his penalty corner drag flicks.
We should salute coach Graham Reid. How well he has trained and selected the right team; he didn’t go just for names but picked the squad of men he knew can handle the humid and hot Tokyo. Playing eight games in 13 days is no joke. Reid had it all planned.
Robin Arkell is another name we should all remember. He is the strength and conditioning coach who has made all our boys so fit. Everyone else involved too needs our gratitude. From the buffer analyst, support staff, and huge credit to Hockey India for charting the roadmap, and to SAI for supporting them.
Each and every player sparkled. Defender Amit Rohidas, who has been a second goalkeeper for us, rushing fearlessly towards the striker at penalty corners. Simranjeet Singh, the most intelligent player of the team, and Harmandeep Singh, our superstar striker. We can keep going through the list.
Everyone had their own struggle. Krishan Pathak, the talented boy who is our stand-by goalkeeper in Tokyo, had lost his mother when he was just 12. Then, in 2016, his father, Teg Bahadur, a crane operator, died and his final rites were in Nepal. I told him the final rites will be over by the time you reach, instead, he should play as a tribute to his father. I played him as the first goalkeeper in that match and told him that his father was watching him. I told Krishna, make your father proud. He did it and hasn’t looked back. Sacrifices…
We sportspersons don’t ask of others what we can’t do ourselves. Not just us, but even our families. Please allow me to tell a personal story. When I was coaching the Youth World Cup team to a win, my son lost vision in an eye. My wife kept it from me until I reached home. “How can I disturb you, you were on duty for the country,” she said. Not many will understand, but this is our life, win or lose. Every member of this team has a story like this.
Mark my words, this team will win the World Cup to be held in India in 2023 in front of adoring crowds.
We faltered at the finish on that fateful day in Sydney and missed the semi-final spot. It’s a process. There is no failure for a sportsperson. We learn, kick on. It has taken 21 years in this particular instance, but the next generation has done it. For themselves and well-wishers. For the country. For the past. For the future. For Indian hockey, our nation’s first love.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 6, 2021 under the title ‘From ex-coach, with love’. The writer has been the head coach of India’s men’s, women’s and junior team. He is currently in charge of the US national side.