Article by Mihir Vasavda, courtesy Indian Express. Photograph credit AFP
cratch the surface of Indian hockey and
what you find is a derelict system where the coach isn't the real problem and his sacking certainly not a
One of the most bizzare stories that perfectly encapsulates the
psychotic world of Indian hockey took place in winter of 2003. The late K. P. S. 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 sent to the National Security Guard campus in
Manesar, Hariyana. For 45 days, 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.
"We had to climb ropes and run
on hard ground. Most of us had cuts on our hands," one 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. Before they could even reach the Hariyana border, they
got calls from Gill himself. The order was
straightforward: return or face action. The mutiny was quashed. And in an autocratic
regime, the mindless military training continued.
Harendra Singh, according to hockey statistician B. G. 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 23
registered hockey coaches with a basic degree in the whole of India. Harendra is India's only coach with an International
Hockey Federation (FIH) license.
If you wonder why the why the federation keeps on going back to foreign coaches, remind yourself
of this statistic. Indian coaches are
light-years behind modern hockey concepts. Sports technology hasn't reached
many parts of India 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 club match in India and all
you'll see is a coach standing on the sidelines and clapping his hands.
No strategy, no tactics.
Back in the day, even the national camps were medieval. Sipping
sugary tea from small plastic cups, the team meetings under Rajinder
Singh Sr. 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.
Domestic tournaments in India are very shallow, with no team
having an identity of its own. Because nothing magical really happens on
the field, 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 the field.
At the national hockey 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.
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.
At the 2012 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, the 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."
The Indian 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
from Punjab were more focused on themselves than the team".
Defender Gurbaj Singh along with former captain Rajpal Singh
and Sarvanjeet 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.
The environment got so claustrophobic while dealing with the unholy
trinity of government, Hockey India and players that
Indian hockey coach Michael Nobbs slipped into
depression and developed serious health issues. Eventually, he quit the
job and returned to Australia.
In 2015, during the Hockey World League
semifinals, Belgian police raided the Indian team hotel and questioned
skipper Sardar Singh for several hours for violent behaviour
with a former England junior women's international.
For several years, rumours have been doing rounds of a young Indian
player being pulled up for forcing himself on a housekeeping staff
during a tournament in Netherlands. Recently, a member of the coaching staff
was sent home in middle of a tournament for misbehaving with the hotel
During the 2018 Commonwealth Games hockey competition, the relationship between two senior players had broken down to
such an extent that former Hockey India president Narinder Batra had to intervene.
One of the first things that the new coach Harendra Singh did was to change
the room partners of every player.
Getting rid of one coach is convenient instead of getting rid of 10 players. Most India coaches have gone out screaming and kicking or have slammed
the door hard on the way out. Disgusted with Indian hockey officials,
Jose Brasa once said: "Monkeys, all of them monkeys!"
Harendra is in the hot seat for the fourth time. Unofficially, he's
supposed to be there till the 2020 Olympics. In reality, he is just one tournament
away from being shown the door.