Hockey World Cup 2018: What's up with coach Harendra Singh giving the game away?

India coach Harendra Singh laid out his cards at half-time against Belgium, which is a brilliant strategy in containing higher-ranked opponents.

India's coach Harendra Singh (blue cap) in a discussion with the players during the match against South Africa.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

More often than not coaches leave after uttering the most clichéd of lines when fending off questions they have heard a multiple times, such as what is your tactic for the next match. What usually follows is: "We are not underestimating the opponent, no matter how strong or weak they are," and often ends with saying, “We know what to do” or one of the many variations meaning the same.

Indian men's hockey team head coach Harendra Singh has turned giving a conventional response on its head. In his first press conference ahead of the Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, he went into detail about each of India's opponents in Pool C. He slid back a little and focused on their style of play, saying, his team had counter-measures.

Hockey journalists and those who have seen him from close quarters know he is obsessed about the game and finds joy in it.


India coach Harendra Singh's obsession with detail is well-known in hockey circles.   -  Biswaranjan Rout


“I think Pool C can see styles from four continents — the North American, African, European and Asian styles. I think it is great for hockey,” he said at the press meet. Now, assessing your opponents is not much of a giveaway.

What stood out was his take to TV presenters during the half-time break in the match against Belgium. What viewers got was a true blue hockey nerd.

Read: How Harendra Singh is turning 16 individuals into a team

TV presenters, in an effort to get the coach to share the game plan while the match is in progress, mostly end up with cliff notes of the entire plot. Harendra, however, revealed he is fine with such questions. He was ready with a comprehensive answer. “During the first half, we were playing sideways and through the wings. But now we need attack through the middle,” he said.

India had gone into half-time trailing by one goal and having conceded more than 60 per cent possession to the fancied Belgians.

In the second-half, his team did exactly what he had said it would. India slashed the Belgian defence through the middle, made it pay for the positional lapses. The host’s attacks also ballooned to 64% in the central region five minutes into the third quarter.

— A fast one or a double bluff? —

Though the Indian coach revealed his strategy, Belgian coach Shane McLeod did not show any sign that he had prepared for it. Both are seasoned and know when to react and how to respond, but Harendra got the better of him even though the match ended in a 2-2 draw.

It is extremely difficult in modern-day hockey to be tactically amoebic. Even for a team of Belgium’s calibre, it became tough to contain the smash and grab hockey India played in Q3.

Also Read: Harendra Singh - Zero margin of error in a quarterfinal

South Africa coach Mark Hopkins might be tempted to urge his side to emulate India’s style when his team meets Belgium on Saturday, but the strategy that Harendra unleashed on Belgium will no longer be a novelty.

What Harendra and his men proved at the Kalinga Stadium against Belgium on December 2 is they ran rings around their opponents with prior notification.

— Coach Singh —

Harendra, who led India’s men’s junior team to the 2016 Junior Hockey World Cup title in Lucknow, also guided the women’s senior team to the Asia Cup 2018 title, which ensured its qualification to the 2018 Women’s Hockey World Cup, London after an eight-year absence.

A tour of Spain also saw the Women’s team draw a five-match series 2-2 against its higher-ranked opponent. He has put his faith in youth and made a bold move by dropping seasoned veterans for the World Cup, bringing in seven players from the Junior World Cup winning team.

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