It’s cruel to judge the performance of a coach — or for that matter anyone else – based on just one tournament. But the fickle nature of Indian hockey administrators means that the team’s trainers have a damocles’ sword hanging over their head.
Harendra Singh has been around for far too long to know this. As he leads the Indian hockey team into its final tournament before the World Cup, the Asian Champions Trophy, Harendra would be aware that anything less than winning the title could make his position untenable. Hockey India has assured there won’t be any changes to the coaching staff between now and the World Cup that begins in Bhubaneswar on November 28. But such assurances have proven hollow in the past and there’s no reason to believe they won’t panic again.
So it no longer matters that Harendra, in his first tournament as coach – the Champions Trophy – led India to a silver-medal finish. The failure to win gold medal at the Asian Games and missing out on an Olympic berth almost cost him the job. So miffed were some hockey administrators that they had already started to look for options to replace Harendra in the week after they lost the semifinal to Malaysia in Jakarta.
With no foreign coach available at such short notice, the names of two Indian coaches – Jagbir Singh and SS Grewal – were considered. But they were unavailable, which handed a lifeline to Harendra. Under Harendra, the team has played an attacking brand of hockey but the lack of on-field discipline has been the biggest letdown.
That, like Harendra’s predecessors experienced, has put the coach’s place in jeopardy. But unlike the previous times, it isn’t just the coach who’s facing scrutiny.
Disquiet among players
For the first time, the players too are feeling the heat. Veteran centre-half Sardar Singh was pushed into retirement in the immediate aftermath of the Games. Then, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh was removed as the captain – a decision that a senior Hockey India official said was ‘a direct consequence of the team’s failure to win Asian Games gold. The decision to handover the captain’s armband to Manpreet Singh, however symbolic, has caused disquiet among the players. Drag-flicker and defender Rupinderpal Singh, too, has been axed due to poor performance along with forward SV Sunil, who later on picked up a knee injury that has put a question mark over his World Cup hopes. High Performance Director David John has been critical of the performance of senior players, which led to his removal from the selection committee for the World Cup.
However, Hockey India has so far only disputed the fact that contents of John’s reports were leaked to the press. There has hardly been any debate on his observations, perhaps because some of them are justified. Although an Indian team without Sreejesh is unthinkable at the moment, the goalkeeper has been uncharacteristically off colour since returning from an ACL injury.
He let in some sloppy goals at the Asian Games and hasn’t been as effective in the shoot-outs as in the past. But a fair share of blame for India’s back-to-back defeats in the tie-breakers (Australia in Champions Trophy final and Malaysia in Asian Games semifinals) also falls on the strikers.
A final look
How the coach and players deal with this pressure will be keenly observed over the next one week, especially since the squad for the World Cup will be announced soon after this tournament.
For Harendra, this will be an opportunity to show that the Asian Games was just a blip as far as India’s continental superiority goes. From the players’ perspective, the Asian Champions Trophy can be an antidote to a painful year where they have underachieved as a unit first at the Commonwealth Games and then the Asiad.
And even though winning the Asian Champions Trophy will barely compensate for shortcomings in these two tournaments, a good result here can instill some much-needed positive vibes in the team going into the World Cup.
There are quite a few new faces in this team, seven to be precise. Defence is where there is a major overhaul. Kothajit Singh, Gurinder Singh and Jarmanpreet Singh have been recalled to the squad while Hardik Singh will make his India debut. In the midfield, Sumit and Nilakanta Sharma have been recalled along with striker Gurjant Singh.
In normal circumstances, the Asian Champions Trophy would’ve been perfect initiation to international hockey for this young squad. But the backdrop in which they enter the tournament and the changing hierarchy in Asian hockey puts an interesting twist to this otherwise bland, meaningless tournament.
Malaysia and Japan have filled the void created because of the decline of Pakistan and South Korea, and have kept the region’s competition at a respectable level.
The fact that Japan won the Asian Games gold, and followed it up with a few other eye-catching results since, and Malaysia clinched the Youth Olympics title earlier this week shows that these two countries have been doing something right.
Earlier this month, Malaysia appointed Roelant Oltmans as their head coach after the Dutchman quit his role as Pakistan’s trainer due to the lack of resources at his disposal. Oltmans, a former India coach, now has the distinction of being in charge of the three Asian nations.
His insights on the Indian team will only embolden Malaysia. Whether Japan and Malaysia can extend their good run remains to be seen. Harendra will hope to set the record straight over the next one week. A win in Muscat, he said, will ‘rejuvenate’ the squad before the World Cup. Anything less than that will only put him, and his players, under further pressure from the federation.