‘Failed’ player guides juniors to hockey World Cup win

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“You’ve asked a critical question”, said the Indian junior hockey team’s coach Harendra Singh, before tears rolled down his cheeks.This correspondent had asked him if he felt like an underachiever, both as player and coach. That was six weeks ago. At that moment, Harendra revealed a pledge he took in 1998, when he became a coach, after being dumped as a player from the national team.

“I told myself that day that I may never be an Olympian, but I will nurture Olympians and world champions the country will be proud of. I’ve never seen the Indian tricolour fly high at a World Cup, I want to see it this time. I’ve invested 22 years of my life to see an Indian team lift the World Cup.”

Harendra’s investment paid off in Lucknow on Sunday as the Harjeet Singh-led side edged out Belgium 2-1 to become the first host nation to win the junior World Cup hockey crown. The victory caps an emotional journey of a team which was carved out of raw talent and brought together in April 2014. The team has made plenty of sacrifices. Second goalkeeper Krishan Pathak didn’t attend the funeral of his father who passed away a few mon ths ago, as the team was heading to England for a series. Seven members of the junior hockey team, including cap tain Harjeet, are sons of driv ers. They have battled the odds from a very young age, but have all been driven by the common goal of winning the Cup.

Given the team’s strengths, a podium finish was expected, but the quality of hockey and the amazing emotional strength they displayed on the field highlighted the fact that they were champion material. The victory by itself was no flash in the pan, the team having won the Junior Asia Cup last year and also the last build-up event – a four-nation tournament in Valencia, Spain.

A lot has happened in Indian hockey over the past eight years. From a side which did not make it to Beijing Olympics in 2008, to the wooden spoon at London four years later, and the eighth-place finish in Rio this year for the senior side.The climb uphill has been slow, but purposeful. In fact, the golden show by the colts caps a great year for Indian hockey in which the senior team has also achieved significant progress and is now ranked No. 6 in the world.

The juniors have ended a 15-year-old World Cup drought. One hopes it gets translated into brighter days for Indian hockey.

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