Hockey Junior World Cup: How an emotional India coach Harendra Singh galvanised the team

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india coach harendra singh

Rotterdam was sunny that day. It was 3 July, 2005. In fact, the sun was very bright as a packed Hockey Club got ready for the India versus Holland match at the 2005 Junior World Cup. Both teams had already qualified for the second round with India topping their pool. Harendra Singh, clip board in hand, like the chief conductor of an opera, directed his players.

As the match wore on, Harendra’s face was a canvas of emotions – anger, frustration, relief, happiness. And then the floodgates opened. India had won 4-1. It must have surprised many when Harendra, throwing away his clip board towards the bench, rushed onto the turf, tears streaming down his face. Around 20 metres from the bench, he grabbed Tushar Khandkar in a bear hug. Khandkar’s face was tear-streaked too. Players came off the bench and hugged both the coach and Khandkar. Finally, calm was restored.

Harendra is an emotional person. He rides emotions like a surfer on the waves in Waikiki, Hawaii. But on that day in Rotterdam, the tears and hugs had a history. Before the Junior World Cup began, Khandkar’s father had passed away in Indore on 25 June. Harendra couldn’t break the news to him and instead said that his father was in a coma, and so he needed to fly home. The team was then training in Frankfurt.

Khandkar attended his father’s funeral on 26 June and was back in Rotterdam on 29 June, ready to play against Egypt. Khandkar didn’t score but had an impressive workload. Against Holland, Khandkar scored twice. The emotions caught up for so many days had finally found an outlet. Coach Harendra in his own way had changed the meaning of the word ‘team’. “Tushar’s performance will lift the team,” Harendra said at that time. “The boys sense the commitment in him even after such a tragedy, and will put in their best to support him.”

Not much has changed in Harendra. The emotional side is still intact. After the team came back from a goal down to beat Spain in the quarter-final, Harendra’s face was tear-streaked. Emotion is his heartbeat. His tears a compensation for the sweat pouring from the players on the turf. Harendra is not defensive about being emotional on the bench. “Yes, I am emotional,” he says. “I give my hundred percent. I always have done that. It’s a process in your life. I cannot be cold or try and be cold. I am with the players in whatever manner I can.”

Five years before 2005, Harendra was assistant to V Bhaskaran in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics. There were very few dry eyes around when India drew with Poland 1-1 and missed a semi-final berth. Expectations had been sky high as only Poland stood between India and a place in the semi-final for the first time since the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Indian captain and gold medallist at Moscow Bhaskaran was the coach.

Poland had equalised with only 45 seconds left on the clock. The image was surreal. Players were lying all over the turf. Dhanraj Pillay sobbing away near the goal post; Mohammed Riaz sitting on the bench not yet understanding what had happened. Harendra, meanwhile, went from player to player, helping them and crying at the same time. “Losing is always painful,” explains Harendra. “And I will never forget that night. We could have played the semi-finals and we let it slip away.” Years later, in a TV interview, when reminded of the Sydney Olympics, Harendra had tears in his eyes.

Harendra’s assistant coach at Lucknow, Romeo James, Indian goalkeeper at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, downplays the emotional bit. “He is very particular as a coach,” says Romeo. “Yes, he does get emotional. But that’s part of his personality. As a coach, he plans everything and is just too meticulous.”

Hockey has an extremely emotional personality for Argentina’s coach Carlos Retegui. High-strung in a very ‘coach’s’ manner, Retegui offers a parallel performance and is someone the fans love. He is the hockey version of Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone, except for the all-black attire. At the 2014 World Cup, he was asked why he was so emotional during the matches. “It’s about winning and losing and I need my players to understand that I am there. So what if I am not playing, but I am pushing them, motivating them and giving directions.”

Coaches like Paul Lissek, Ric Charlesworth, and Barry Dancer are ice-like. It’s like they are watching a re-run of the match – quiet, poker faced and emotionless. Harendra has modelled himself on Charlesworth whom he considers a ‘guru’. “He is like a mentor,” says Harendra. “I wish I could work with him. He is the best in the world.” It would be an interesting combination – Harendra’s emotional roller-coaster ride in contrast to the ice-man-like Charlesworth

The emotional tension will be extremely high in and around the Indian hockey team at the moment. As James says, “We will try and calm them down. Keep emotions under control as we still have to play the final.”

Harendra says they have prepared for such a day. “I have always told them we will play the final and now that the day is here, decide which medal you want,” he says. “I also tell them to ask themselves ‘why did you want to play hockey?’ and the amount of sacrifices so many people around us have done so that we could win.”

Colonel Balbir Singh, the 1968 Olympics bronze medallist and former Indian coach has seen Harendra grow in stature. “I saw him as a player,” he says. “And then as he became the coach, you see him improve. Yes, I am used to his emotional side. But if he uses that to motivate the team, what’s wrong? See the way the players switch positions, and it’s full marks to the man’s dedication and commitment to the art of coaching.”

Harendra may be emotionally high-strung, but over the years, since he started off as a coach, he has become more robust. He uses the past (the semi-final loss to Australia in 2005 after being 2-0 up) as a step forward. In Friday’s match, the 4-2 revenge against Australia must have been sweet for him. If the Indian juniors march past Belgium in the final on Sunday and Harendra stands holding the trophy aloft, ironically, it would be the fans who would be teary-eyed, happy at what has been a man’s trek through thick and thin to the very top.

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