If the men’s team needs a stop-gap arrangement between the stints of two high-profile foreign coaches, dial Harendra. If the women’s team needs a coach at short notice for an important tournament, dial Harendra. If a Hockey India League franchise needs a coach who is comfortable dealing with young local talent as well as established overseas players, dial Harendra. If the junior national team wants a coach to guide them to the world title, dial Harendra.
The Air India employee has been the ultimate Man Friday for Indian hockey for over a decade now, always available to do a job as per the requirements. He didn’t have a stellar playing career, which the bevy of Indian Olympians are never shy of reminding him, but the hard-done-by sentiment has been channelled into shaping one of the shrewdest minds in hockey. While the older generation became arm-chair critics and experts, Harendra went about augmenting his skills, often going to tournaments where India was not even playing, to suss out new trends and techniques in coaching.
Ask the women’s team which was transformed from a side that finished 12th at the Rio Olympics to Asian champions within a few weeks of taking over. It will not be the first time Harendra will take charge of the men’s team, having done the job on an interim basis on a few earlier occasions.
The timing of the switch is not ideal with the Champions Trophy, Asian Games and World Cup scheduled in quick succession. But as is always the case with Harendra, he will not be short of confidence in a job he has always craved on a long-term basis. He always comes across as a person with a chip on his shoulder, always feeling the urge to prove his detractors wrong. Despite having taken up every conceivable coaching assignment in his time, he craves acceptance in the hockey establishment.
However, there is no doubt he is accepted by whichever players’ group he is put in charge of. Harendra was made coach of the women’s team a few months after guiding the juniors to the World Cup title. When he returned with the Asia Cup, women’s skipper Rani Rampal said: “We knew we had a winner as the coach of our team. That filled us with confidence.”
And that is Harendra’s biggest strength – he fills his players with belief that they are second-best to no one, that every tournament they enter, they should aim to go all the way. And he conveys all this, as well as his considerable tactical nous, in a language that all Indian players understand. What may work in his favour in his new job is that several players he worked with during the successful Junior World Cup campaign are either already in the squad or on the fringes. Harendra will not have to work too hard to get his coaching philosophy, based on attacking hockey, across.
The Champions Trophy in the Netherlands is the next assignment, but the Indian hockey fraternity will be focusing more on the Jakarta Asian Games in August as retaining the gold medal there will seal a berth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, saving a lot of anxiety and preparation time. The World Cup, at the end of the year, is on home turf and the new coach would be confident of giving it a real shake.
Ambition is never in short supply when one interacts with Harendra. He believes Indian coaches, with the requisite training and experience, can put an end to the perceived reliance on the foreign hand. The outspoken Joaquim Carvalho was the last Indian coach to take the senior men’s team to a major international tournament – his failure to seal a berth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics scared the powers-that-be – Indian Hockey Federation and then Hockey India – from hiring home-grown coaches. A fruitful stint from Harendra can be a shot in the arm for upcoming Indians in that regard as well. Clearly, a lot is at stake over the next few months.