Harendra Singh: A coach with a peripheral vision

"The first thing I did was to make sure that no player had a fixed position. You may divide them into forwards and defenders on paper but on the field there is no difference. I wanted every player to perform every role," Harendra Singh, the coach of the Indian team that won the Junior World Cup, says.

Harendra Singh... a coach with novel ideas.   -  K. MURALI_KUMAR

Forward Armaan Quereshi nets one for India against England in the junior World Cup. Armaan speaks in glowing terms of coach Harendra.   -  RAJEEV BHATT

It has taken Harendra Singh 18 years but the “Ziddi Bihari” has finally given Indian hockey a World Champion team. His “18 diamonds” lifted the junior World Cup in Lucknow, at the appropriately named Major Dhyan Chand Stadium, but the coach, while all praise for his boys, warned there were bigger battles ahead for them.

In a detailed interview with Sportstar, Harendra (accompanied by striker Armaan Qureshi) talks about the squad, how it all started and where he plans to go from here.

Excerpts:

Question: How do you assess the Indian team’s overall performance at the Junior World Cup apart from the result itself?

Answer: The hockey that was played by India in the competition gives me a lot of hope — we did not lose a single match. Forget losing, we did not even draw a game; every single match from the first one against Canada, we won, over a period of 15 days and against six very tough opponents, it is not a small thing.

Every team has its weak moments through a tournament, even the biggest of them like Germany or Australia. But we did not falter once. We did struggle occasionally but then this was the World Cup, there are no free lunches at this level. The main thing is that we did not collapse. There is a burning desire in this team that, if channelled properly in the right direction, can become an unstoppable force in future years.

Was there ever a time in the tournament when you were scared or concerned about the results?

Not really. Back in 2014, when we won the Sultan of Johor tournament, we had beaten Australia 6-2. We beat England in the final with a largely under-19 side, against a team that had its under-23, or developmental side players. That’s when I told these boys that the journey may be tough but you can become World Champions. Over the years, it is their hard work and commitment — that and the kind of insane work our trainer Cody Tribe did with them — that gave me the confidence to claim we can win the title here.

Tell us a little about how exactly you went about moulding this diverse group of players into a team and the areas you worked on.

That’s a good question. There is a lot of talk about winning the World Cup but little about how it all came about. The main thing was to make them realise that there was work to be done on basics.

For a long time, we used to crib about Indian players losing their mind under pressure, unable to trap or pass in the final minutes etc. I always told the players that Harendra Singh was the best player ever, except for two shortcomings — he could not pass or receive the ball! What is then the use of anything else without the basics?

For a whole year, we trained only in passing and receiving — how to do it, the various ways to do it, when to do it, how to do it under pressure and when comfortable, on the run and static, every single thing. That’s why, if you see here, 99 percent of the time we did not lose the ball under pressure, we cleared the danger. Even the senior team realised this in our first practice game with them in 2014.

The first six months, I know the boys did not like it, a lot of them openly protested. But I made videos of them during training and asked them to analyse it themselves. They realised what they were doing wrong, they understood they had to work on the basics as well. Also, the 2014 Johor tournament was the first international outing for this team and many of the players individually as well. They perhaps accepted me completely as a coach who can deliver only after that and I understand. They needed to see the result to believe in my ways. I am glad they did.

(Armaan) We are what we are because of this man here. He believed in us when we did not. He broke us, abused us and almost killed us in training but today we realise all that was worth it. We never thought we were worthy of winning the World Cup, this man made us believe and make it a reality.

Let’s talk about the actual game plan for the Junior World Cup.

The first thing I did was to make sure that no player had a fixed position. You may divide them into forwards and defenders on paper but on the field there is no difference. I wanted every player to perform every role. Earlier, there were fixed roles. Because of that, a striker, when he had to defend, would not know how to, he would either tackle roughly or commit some other foul and earn suspension. Not here.

All they had were three rules to score — a one-touch goal would get them three points, two-touch one point and creating a penalty corner got two points. Automatically they began playing one-touch hockey, passing early and the other teams were not prepared for this from India. Not their fault, they never saw India playing like this, but they had not done their homework.

We continue to talk about the exceptional skills of former Indian players and to that we have now added fitness as well...

Jhooth bolte hain (They lie). Every single person — coach or player, Indian or foreign — who talks about Indians being the only ones with special skills in the past is only making a fool of the public and perpetuating the myth. Skill is not something exclusive to any one region or country, every team has always had one or two gifted, skilful players. What the others did was to create a framework and add the other important ingredients for success to the skills whereas we kept harping on skills and forgot about the rest.

See, it’s simple. You may have the skills but what do you do with them? A coach may have the plans but how can he execute them on the field? Fitness is the most important thing if you have to execute your skills. And I cannot take any credit for that. All that is Cody’s work, he made these boys into the fittest machines on field.

The hockey I wanted to teach them, the one that I did teach them, is not just about skills. You cannot win tournaments with only skills, maybe a couple of matches at most. Unfortunately in Indian hockey we never built a team — it kept revolving around 3-4 skilful players for years without investing in the other stuff. That’s why I have a team, not a collection of players.

What was the one area that you had to struggle the most with the boys?

Peripheral vision. If you have that, you can run with the ball, keep your head up and then pass to a team-mate without letting the opposition know your plans. Everything is on video now, every team can assess a player’s body language and technique. If you look down, they know you are planning to pass and intercept. If you don’t, they can’t.

(Armaan) That was the toughest drill ever. We worked the hardest on it — controlling and running with the ball, especially along the sidelines, while looking up and not giving up possession or going out of play. All these months and years, we kept practising it so much that we became automatons in cruise mode. We still make errors but now we know we can do it.

(Harendra) But they need to continue practising. If they stop, they will slide into old habits. I tell them, do everything your coach tells you when you go for domestic tournaments but do these drills also. Most of them will not be a part of the junior set up here on. It is easy to lose way, only the players can decide if they want to continue the development graph. All I can tell them now is, don’t let the hunger die with this one title, it’s a start not the end.