A fresh mindset is needed to address the coaching issue

EACH time the Indian Hockey Federation appoints a new coach a debate is triggered off.

EACH time the Indian Hockey Federation appoints a new coach a debate is triggered off. Small wonder, then, the nominations of Rajinder Singh (Jr) along with Narenderpal Singh and Romeo James for the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament evoked a lively discussion. That the selection was only for the Kuala Lumpur tournament clearly increased speculation over the future course of action of the IHF. With the World Cup in Germany — for which India is an automatic qualifier — only a year away, the temporary appointments may well queer the pitch.

As far as the credentials go, three of the two in the panel — Rajinder Singh (Jr) and Romeo James — have donned the India colours in the Olympics, Asian Games and Asian Championships. But a disquieting aspect is that none of them has handled a senior national team in an international event. Rajinder's litmus test came in the National Championship in which the Punjab and Sind Bank, coached by him, annexed the Rangaswamy Cup. Narenderpal Singh won acclaim for piloting Hyderabad Sultans — which included Pakistani ace Sohail Abbas and which was led by Indian skipper Dilip Tirkey — to the top of the podium in the inaugural Premier Hockey League in Hyderabad.

However, the IHF is bound to select the coach by evaluating international results more than the performance of coaches in domestic competitions. It will be a horrendous mistake to assume that the Azlan Shah tournament is an insignificant competition, where the outcome has no real value. On the contrary, the event has grown tremendously in stature, ranking next only to the prestigious Champions Trophy organised by the FIH every year. India's image was sullied last year when an experimental squad finished last in the seven-nation event. The decision to field such a team came in for sharp criticism from all round, notably from the host nation, which depends so much on the Indian performance to keep the turnstiles moving.

In contrast, Australia used the event as a starting block for its Olympic campaign. Not only did the team surge into splendid rhythm beating Pakistan in the final but also went on to win its first ever Olympic men's hockey gold medal at Athens. The Germans and the Spaniards also have regarded the competition in Malaysia as fertile testing ground for their best possible combinations.

With the guessing game still on about the future of coaches, it is difficult to refrain from remembering the sad chapters of those coaches taken to the altar whenever the team fumbled in a high-profile competition. If any chronicler carefully catalogues the coaches so dismissed, India may take pole position among all major hockey playing countries. True, coaches are changed, or sacked, even in countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Australia but nowhere does the issue produce extreme reactions, rancour and recrimination. Ever heard of a coach changed midway in a World Cup? Or a coach sacked even before the euphoria of a gold medal triumph at the 1998 Asian Games could sink in?

Nobody would be convinced with the explanation that such happenings are aberrations. There has to be a total attitudinal change in the administration towards coaches. Unfortunately, the history of Indian hockey is replete with instances of coaches being made scapegoats. The first experiment with a foreign coach ended in a fiasco after the Athens Olympiad. How many coaches on the international scene today will come forward to accept India's offer without a trace of scepticism is a difficult question to answer at this point.

The complex task before Rajinder Singh (Jr) is all too evident when studied against the murky background of coaches and their unsure tenure in India. Singh has struck the right note saying that he had taken the job in all humility and as an honour. He has to fight several constraints though, the major one being the time factor. The team went into first session with just less than a month left for the competition.

Rajinder Singh (Jr) has to match wits with top coaches like Barry Dancer. On the positive side, interacting with some of them will go a long way in opening up new vistas in training. Cedric D'Souza earned the respect and admiration of many of the foreign coaches because they acknowledged his perception on various aspects of training and coaching. He shared a beautiful, enduring working relationship with the German, Paul Lissek.

It is a pity that the IHF was compelled to look for new faces. The logical step would have been to continue with Jagbir Singh who was associated with the team from last year. But Jagbir's reluctance to give up the role of a commentator in the news media — an unacceptable pre-condition for the IHF — created a vacuum. Now that the issue is settled for the moment, the focus should shift to the team's training in New Delhi.