India has finished in the top three at three major competitions since Harendra Singh took charge of the men’s senior side in May, but a 2-1 quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands at the 2018 Hockey World Cup has raised the question of whether Hockey India will continue with him as coach. After all, since 2010, five of his six predecessors – Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Terry Walsh, Paul Van Ass and Roelant Oltmans – were shown the door after a string of underwhelming results.
But former India players and coaches want Singh to remain in his post, saying he and the team both need time to improve.
“No coach comes with a magic wand. Even if it is an Indian coach or someone like (former Australia player and coach) Ric Charlesworth, it takes time to focus on a group of players. The coach works towards a goal with that set of players. You need to give him time despite the ups and downs in the way,” former India coach Joachim Carvalho said in Bhubaneswar.
“Not being in the last four does not mean that Harendra is a bad coach. He is going uphill and the recent results prove it. Changing the coach immediately does not serve any purpose,” he added.
The quarterfinal loss could be put down to minor mistakes committed by the young Indian team, the youngest side at the World Cup, against an experienced Dutch team, which has 10 players with more than 100 international caps each. But impressive performances in the group stage — a 5-0 win against South Africa, a 2-2 draw with world No. 3 Belgium and a 5-1 thumping of Canada — showed what the team is capable of.
Merwyn Fernandes, a member of the 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning team, said the Indian team will only improve under Singh.
“My only fear is that there should not be any drastic changes when we lose, because the side is young. If we look at how we fared in the Champions Trophy, we finished with a silver medal. I think we are on the right track,” the former India forward said.
M. M. Somaya, Fernandes’ teammate at the 1980 Olympics, agreed. “It has happened here all the time. A coach should be given three-four years minimum. Before Harendra took over, the other coaches were also doing well. But one bad result, they are out. I think that is not a good idea,” he said.
Somaya also felt that Indian hockey is in the ascendancy and will soon to reach the top three in the world rankings.
“It took us two-and-a-half decades to break into the top five of the rankings. If you look at badminton, it has taken years to see Saina Nehwal and P. V. Sindhu emerge at the top. Right now, hockey is in that phase. We are knocking on the door to break into the top three.”
After the loss, coach Harendra Singh and captain Manpreet Singh criticised the umpiring during the game, particularly the 10-minute suspension given to Amit Rohidas in the final quarter that left India a man less for the remainder of the match. But Fernandes said the players should be prepared for such difficult situations.
“Yes, the suspension could have been for five minutes in another scenario. When Joachim (Carvalho) was coaching the Indian team in a pre-Olympics match, there were just 10 players on the pitch throughout the match because the umpire was sending out the players for minor infringements. Playing today with 10 players is not at all easy, but the players need to respect the umpire’s decision. Learning that will make things easy,” the 59-year old said.
With Pakistan and China returning home at the crossover stage, India was the only Asian team to reach the quarterfinals at the World Cup. Fernandes, however, felt that there is very little to differentiate between the top sides.
“It is unfortunate that none of the Asian teams are in the semifinals. But if you look at Holland’s match against Germany, they lost 4-1. Nobody expected France to beat Argentina. On a particular day, any team in any sport, the top 11 ranked teams can beat the other. This competition is making hockey more interesting,” he said.
The writer is in Bhubaneswar on an invitation from the Sports Journalists’ Federation of India.