Axe, Y, Z of Indian Hockey: 18 years, 22 coaches, 1 Asian Games gold

A string of below-par performances, another medalless tournament and the predictable coach axing. Scratch the surface of Indian hockey and you find is a derelict system where the coach isn’t the real problem and his sacking certainly not a sustainable solution

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: May 6, 2018 12:26:09 pm
Axe, Y, Z of Indian Hockey: 18 years, 22 coaches, 1 Asiad gold A player graduates to the national team from domestic circuit where the atmosphere is of fear and trepidation. By the time he wears the India colours his capacity to think has been systematically demolished. (Source: Illustration by C Sasikumar)

One of the most bizzare stories that perfectly encapsulates the psychotic world of Indian hockey took place in winter 2003, not on a hockey field but at a commando training centre.

The late KPS Gill, who ruled the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) with an iron-fist for two decades, was enamoured by the fitness of the South Korean players. The secret, one of his aides told him, lay in compulsory military service.

So almost overnight, 25 national team players were summoned for a camp. This wasn’t your usual training camp at Delhi’s National Stadium. Rather, they were all sent to the National Security Guard campus in Manesar. “That month or two was a nightmare,” a player titters.

For 45 days before their tour to Australia, the players had to ditch their hockey sticks and learn to use AK-47s while chief coach Rajinder Singh Sr and his staff would simply meander around the campus when the ustads took charge of the national camp. “We had to climb ropes and run on hard ground. Most of us had cuts on our hands,” the player recalls. “It’s the kind of training that makes you tough but it’s not for athletes. You’re one wrong move away from an injury.”

The 25 were so frustrated that, in fit of rage, they dared to rebel against Gill and left the boot camp. Gill, though, struck fear for a reason. Before they could even reach the Haryana border, they started getting calls one after the other from Gill himself. The order was straightforward: return or face action – which usually meant getting sacked from the team. The mutiny was quashed. And in an autocratic regime, the mindless military training continued.

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The great coach scapegoat Harendra Singh has replaced Sjoerd Marijne as the new coach of the Indian men’s hockey team (Source: Hockey India)

The trials and tribulations a player goes through before he even gets close to the national team is a military drill in itself.

Dipsan Tirkey is your average face in the hockey crowd. The defender from Sundergarh began playing with a borrowed stick on a pebble-laden ground in his village. When he got better, he was allowed the privilege of the grass surface. By the time he was spotted by the Rourkela academy, he was 12 already. The difference was so stark and he had to unlearn everything from the previous five years and begin all over again.

The officials want us to believe that infrastructure is no more a hurdle. In cities, sure it’s not. Mumbai, for instance, did not have a single decent artificial turf till a decade ago despite being the cradle of Indian hockey. Back then, dozens of schools took part in tournaments – some even had their Hindi and Science teachers doubling up as coaches – that were played on sand or grass. But at least there was a thriving hockey scene.

Today, when the city finally has two decent-quality turfs (one, which was funded by the Mumbai Cricket Association as barter for using a tiny portion of the hockey stadium’s land), majority of schools have discontinued the sport altogether. Most players today come from the interiors, where the turfs haven’t reached yet. Contrast that with a player from Germany or Holland, who start on turf at the age of five, and you understand why they are technically so superior.

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Axe, Y, Z of Indian Hockey: 18 years, 22 coaches, 1 Asiad gold Harendra Singh (L) is the 51st time a coach has been appointed for the men’s hockey team since 1980. (Source: File)

Poor technique is also a direct consequence of poor coaching.

Harendra Singh, according to hockey statistician BG Joshi, is the 51st time a coach has been appointed for the men’s team since 1980. He is the crisis man of Indian hockey. As much out of choice, this is also out of compulsion. According to Hockey India data, there are just 49 registered coaches in the whole of India.

Of them, just 15 are women. Twenty three have a basic degree, mainly from Patiala’s National Institute of Sport. The rest do not have formal coaching education. Harendra is India’s only coach with an International Hockey Federation license (Cedric D’Souza is another coach with international acclaim but he hasn’t shown keenness to coach the national team after he was sacked midway through the 2002 World Cup).

If you wonder why the basics of Indian players, even those in the national team, are weak, remind yourself of this stat. And it’s also why the federation keeps on going back to foreign coaches. The Indians are light-years behind modern hockey concepts. Technology hasn’t reached many parts yet.

“When I played club hockey in Germany, each player was given a dossier on his opponent, which had everything – the kind of moves he makes, the mistakes he is likely to commit. We studied that and played accordingly,” says Viren Rasquinha. Go to a local match in India and all you’ll see is a coach standing on the sidelines and clapping his hands. No strategy, no tactics.

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The domestic tournaments thus become very shallow, with no team having an identity of its own. Because nothing magical really happens on fields, these tournaments are remembered for the fracas the teams are involved in rather than the matches. In the 90s, most umpires refused to officiate matches involving Punjab Police because of their behaviour on field.

Through the noughties, several teams from the region stopped getting invites to domestic tournaments elsewhere because they habitually beat up players and officials from other teams and, on most occasions, got away without any action from the federation. At the national championships in Pune in 2013, five players from Namdhari XI dragged Railways players and a coach from their hostel room at Balewadi and beat the living daylights out of them. Their fault? They knocked Namdhari out of the competition.

In the same tournament, a team from Bangalore masqueraded as one from Andaman and competed despite the officials being aware just so they could get participation certificates and, subsequently, government jobs.

It’s an atmosphere of fear and trepidation, where junior players are smothered and voicing opinion is largely discouraged. It is from here that a player graduates to the national team. But by now, his capacity to think has been systematically demolished.

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Back in the day, even the national camps were medieval. Sipping sugary tea from small plastic cups, the team meetings under Rajinder Singh Senior used to be short, but hardly incisive. “He just told us, ‘zor se khelna’ (play with aggression),” a player recalls. Before the match? Zor se khelna. Trailing? Zor se khelna… Luckily for Rajinder, he was coaching one of the most gifted bunch so results, somehow, followed.

His namesake, Rajinder Singh (Junior), followed a similar style but used a different line. “Punjab and Sindh Bank jaisa khelna (Play like Punjab and Sindh Bank),” was his pet phrase, a reference to the team he led to the national title, which landed him the India job. When Romeo James introduced golf balls for goalkeeper training in 2005, it was seen as revolutionary. “Golf ball is tiny. If the keeper can spot that at high speed, he will be able to see hockey ball like a football,” James had once said.

That experiment ended tragically. The tiny ball went through Baljit Singh’s grill and hit his eye. The goalkeeper lost his vision. India lost one of their most talented players.

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A lot of players have been lost also because of the whimsical administrators and coaches. Romantics often compare Indian hockey to Brazilian football of yore. Can they be more inaccurate and lazy? Brazil are beautiful whereas the only thing that’s in Indian hockey’s DNA is feuding. You can blame Marijne for his flawed selections. But he was simply carrying forward the dubious tradition that dates back to 1968 Games. Not a mere coincidence that India’s fall from grace began from there. Back then, the appointment of joint captains — Prithipal Singh and Gurbax Singh — divided the team, which eventually settled for a bronze.

In 1976, the then IHF president MAM Ramaswamy made Aslam Khan the captain of the team for an invitation tournament in Lahore. In retaliation, Prithipal – who had by now retired – resigned as the chairman of the selection committee, claiming he wasn’t consulted over the team selection (curiously, when Sreejesh replaced Manpreet as the captain at the orders of Batra last week, chief selector Harbinder Singh had no knowledge. He, however, hasn’t resigned — yet).

Even after 26 years, the omission of goalkeeper Edgar Mascarenhas from the team for Barcelona Olympics makes little sense. In Sydney, forward Jagan Senthil was dropped despite playing all preparatory tournaments while Adam Sinclair’s inclusion in the team for the 2004 Games continues to be one of the biggest mysteries of Indian hockey.

Dhanraj Pillay summed up Sinclair’s selection in the way only he can: “I can tell you that this boy (Sinclair) did not know how to hit the ball but (then IHF secretary) Jothikumaran got him in and the then coach Gerhard Rach tutored him thrice a day to teach him the basics.”

Fast forward to Rio – Sardar Singh, who’s played as centre-half for the last decade, is named as forward. Why, a selector is asked. “Just continuing the tradition,” he smiles.

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Former India men's hockey team coach Sjoerd Marijne Sjoerd Marijne will return to lead the women’s team. (Source: Hockey India)

At the London Olympics, India have slumped to their fourth straight defeat, a 3-0 loss to the rapidly-rising Belgium. A player from the team, now recommended for Arjuna Award, is asked about the poor performances. “If you are so concerned, here’s the stick…go and play the next match,” he haughtily replies.

Moments later, then coach Michael Nobbs walks up to this correspondent and fumes: “Before you ask the reasons for the team doing badly, ask your players why they refused to play.”

It wasn’t clear then but it would become evident later. The players had staged a virtual coup during the Games. In their report to Hockey India, Nobbs and then physio David John stated that “a group of players (Punjab) were more focused on themselves than the team”.

Gifted defender Gurbaj Singh along with former captain Rajpal Singh and Sarvanjit Singh were the “ringleaders”. Players were asked to fake injuries, a bunch of them would mock others when the team lost while most were jealous that Sardar Singh got all the media attention. Three years later, Gurbaj would be accused again of dividing the team – this time by assistant coach Jude Felix.

Nobbs is a jovial man with great man-management skills. But the environment got so claustrophobic because of dealing with the unholy trinity of government, Hockey India and the players that he slipped into depression and developed serious health issues. Eventually, he quit the job and returned to Australia.

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Cliques have always existed in the team. London was the rare occasion where the coach complained about it to the federation, who did nothing about it. Over the years, the omerta has been so strong and unified that some enormous issues have been swept under the carpet.

It has now been widely reported that in 2015, during the World League semifinals, Belgian police raided the Indian team hotel and questioned skipper Sardar Singh for several hours for allegedly violent behaviour with a former England junior international woman player of Indian origin.

For several years, rumours have been doing rounds of a young Indian player being pulled up for forcing himself on a house-keeping staff during a tournament in Holland. Recently, a member of the coaching staff was sent home in middle of a tournament for misbehaving with the hotel staff.

Even in the current set-up, cracks are starting to appear. It is believed the relationship between two senior players has broken down to such an extent that former Hockey India president Narinder Batra, who conducted the CWG postmortem last week, had to intervene. Harendra is a master of handling such situations. As a remedy, he changed room partners of every player – the latest change in the desperate hunt for the medal.

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Interestingly, Indian hockey warmed up to shorter formats much before cricket did. The Premier Hockey League became a trend-setter in 2005. But the IHF did not have the vision to make it sustainable. Then came the World Series Hockey, a breakaway tournament that lasted for a couple of years. Eventually, the Hockey India League came into existence. The tournament ticked all boxes: it had the best players, had prime time TV slot and a window in the international calendar. In a short span, it challenged the long-established and more competitive Euro Hockey League and helped the Indian players shed the inhibitions of playing against a global superstar. It also made the sport financially viable. Yet, the administrators could not protect its most admired product. The franchises did not find the league sustainable and this year, the league hasn’t taken place.

Axe, Y, Z of Indian Hockey: 18 years, 22 coaches, 1 Asiad gold In a short span, the Hockey India League challenged the long-established and more competitive Euro Hockey League and helped the Indian players shed the inhibitions of playing against a global superstar.

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Circa Gold Coast, 2018. It’s the final minute of the first quarter of the semifinal against New Zealand. India are down by one and hope to keep it that way going into quarter-break. Amit Rohidas, the latest from Orissa’s remarkable conveyor belt, is with the ball on the right near India’s ‘D’. But he doesn’t know what to do with it. He looks around for help, but can’t decide whether to long and diagonal or short to the player in front of him. In the dugout, Marijne senses trouble. “Down the line, Amit… just play down the line,” he yells. Rohidas is just 10 yards away from Marijne but pretends he hasn’t heard. Marijne repeats the instructions three more times. But Rohidas panics and passes to Manpreet Singh who’s on top of the ‘D’. Two New Zealand forwards pounce on him, snatch the ball and score past Sreejesh. Rohidas’s shoulders slump. So do India’s fortunes. It’s been the story for India throughout the tournament – brain fades at key moments. Rather, it’s been India’s story forever. “It’s been a problem for the last five coaches since 2011,” India’s high performance director David John would admit.

But getting rid of one coach is convenient instead of 10 players.

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Perhaps even Hockey India has resigned to the fact that a coach is just one tournament away from being shown the door.

Most India coaches have gone out screaming and kicking or have slamed the door hard on the way out. Disgusted with the officials, Brasa would say: “Monkeys, all of them monkeys.” Terry Walsh and Paul van Ass were both sent home after getting into public spats with Batra. Oltmans was the most diplomatic of them all, wearing multiple hats during his four-year stay. But the players found him too autocratic. They complained to Batra and he was gone last year. Marijne tried to be friendly and democratised the decision making process. But even that didn’t please the players. “He wants us to do everything,” they whinged to Batra. Marijne’s gone too.

Harendra’s in the hot seat for the fourth time. Unofficially, he’s supposed to be there till 2020 Olympics. In their official release, Hockey India makes no mention of the duration of his contract. Perhaps even they’ve resigned to the fact that a coach is just one tournament away from being shown the door.

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