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V for vindicated

Behind India's hockey triumph, the grit, pain and stubbornness of coach Harendra Singh

Coach Harendra Singh (Right) with the Indian team. Photo: PTI
Coach Harendra Singh (Right) with the Indian team. Photo: PTI

Harendra Singh joined his palms, and made an earnest request to the members of the press. “I beg you," said the man who coached India to their second Junior Hockey World Cup. “Tonight belongs to these 18 boys. This is their moment, they have won the cup. Please ask your questions to them, not to me." And even as the newly crowned world champions took questions, while taking turns to kiss the World Cup trophy in between, it was hard to miss the tears rolling down the cheeks of their coach, who stood behind the group. This story is his.

Harendra Singh is an emotional man, and unapologetic about it. “I had told myself that if we don’t win this trophy, then I will not associate myself with hockey any longer," he says.

Singh takes sips of water while pouring his heart out after his boys are finally sent to their hotel rooms after an evening of celebrations. “I am drained. I am hollow from inside," he says. “Because I have given hockey everything. But today I am also calm from within. Finally, after all these years."

Singh’s coaching career has been punctuated with hurt and humiliation. But what has pricked him the most in all these years is the thorn of 2005, when India, title favourites for the Junior World Cup being held in Rotterdam, missed out on a medal. Singh, who was coach then, became the media and the Indian Hockey Federation’s favourite punching bag. “I want to thank and salute this well known journalist who wrote in the front page of his newspaper that Harendra is a hopeless coach, and that if Indian hockey has to be saved, Harendra must be sacked immediately " he says. “Had it not been for that stinging remark, I wouldn’t have become so stubborn. My wife told me, unless you return as a champion, you should forget hockey."

That day Singh signed up for a FIH (International Hockey Federation) coaching course with his own money. “I think I became a fanatic that day," he says with a smile. “In all these years, I have finished 14 coaching courses. I’ve spent 39 lakh from my own savings to sign up for these courses, and to buy and try out equipment that they recommended. I wouldn’t have been standing here as a coach today had it not been for my wife, Samiksha. We still don’t have our own house. And while I was using up my savings to buy hockey equipment to experiment, she was selling her jewellery to keep our house running."

His other backbone is former India captain Dhanraj Pillay, who has been with Singh through thick and thin. “My wife jokes that we (Dhanraj and me) are like a couple. Any evening if we haven’t called each other, she asks me, your husband didn’t call you today?"

Indian Junior hockey players celebrate with the winning trophy of the Junior World Cup Hockey 2016 after their victory over Belgium in Lucknow on Sunday. Photo: PTI

Singh made meticulous notes at those courses he enrolled in, observed and learnt from the world’s best as he continued to stick around with Indian hockey coaching, in different capacities. “Despite being around for so long, I’ve felt as an outsider," he says. “Yes, I was not brilliant in my playing days, I was average. And I may not have played in the Olympics. But athletes in our country feel once they’ve got that tag of being an Olympian, they have the authority to say and do anything. My job application was sent back from Indian Airlines on the basis of where I come from (Chhapra in Bihar). “Ab Bihari hockey bhi sikhaayega? (now a Bihari will teach hockey?) I was told."

He continued to stay stubborn, and little by little brought about changes in whichever side he was in charge of. Having seen and learnt from teams around the world, he introduced GPS technology during training in Indian hockey. Not many Indian coaches are known to be fond of using hi-tech software to analyse performances, but not Harry, as fellow coaches call him. And while India’s national coaches, many of them foreigners, tried introducing European playing methods, Singh stuck to Indian hockey, and what it’s most famous for—dribbling.

That was evident during India’s World Cup win as well, where the trick was to keep things simple. The fact that Singh stressed on the fitness of the players as much as he did only helped their cause. In the final, for instance, the Belgian side, was completely tired out by their Indian counterparts in the first half.

“He gave us a sattar minute (70 minutes) speech before the final like Chak de India," says captain Harjeet Singh. “He just told us, this is the most important day of your lives, this is not the day to experiment. You play your hearts out in this one match, and tomorrow will be different when you wake up."

“But he is stricter than Kabir Khan in the movie!" interrupts forward Arman Qureshi. “So strict with fitness and diet. "

The camaraderie in this team is evident, on and off the turf. “I can say this with pride that I have produced 18 players, not one," Singh says. “People have different coaching methods. I work with emotions," he says. “I am emotional, and when I talk to these boys, I want to see emotions in them. I need to know who they are not just as hockey players, but as human beings."

Singh had one-on-one sessions with each of the boys in the team, who were made part of a core group about two years back, and wanted to know about their families, homes, hobbies, and what troubled them. He made a whatsapp group with all the players. Ideas were exchanged, motivational messages were forwarded, and on the night of 18th December 2016, the subject of the group chat was changed to “2016 World Champions".

“When any of my boys are troubled, how will they give 100% on the field?" he asks. “Last year Santa’s (Singh) sister passed away, this year Krishan (Pathak) lost his father. Death can be a life changing experience, and set you back. My job was to not let that happen, and instead let that tragedy make you stronger."

India’s senior captain, and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh saves one of the best compliments for Singh. “This team has done what it has done today because of that one man," he says, pointing towards Singh, who has been dragged in for a dance with the players, after the World Cup win. “Some people are mad, he is one of them."

Incidentally, Sreejesh, who was a back up keeper in that World Cup (2005) side, is also Singh’s find. When he was brought into the junior side for World Cup trials, Sreejesh didn’t have his own set of goalkeeping pads. Once again Singh was ridiculed. “Bihari has gone and picked up a keeper who doesn’t have pads," Singh recalls. “We borrowed someone else’s pads for the trials, and I told Sreejesh, one day, you will play for the Indian national team."

Suprita Das is a senior sports correspondent with NDTV

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