Hockey players remember their hero, M.K. Kaushik

A hard taskmaster and a disciplinarian, he was always a player’s coach, which invariably led to confrontations with the administrative powers.

M. K. Kaushik was a hard taskmaster and a disciplinarian.   -  Sushil Kumar Verma

Pritam Siwach cannot stop crying. She answers the phone normally enough but breaks down when you just mention the name ‘Kaushik’.

Hum to jo hain, jahan hain unhi ki wajah se hain, gaon se dhoond ke uthaya tha unhone mujhe, aisa lagta hai mere father chale gaye (Whatever and wherever we are today is because of him only. He picked me out from obscurity as a kid. It feels like I have lost my father),” she sobs.

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The 46-year-old former captain and one of the finest players ever is just one of many players whose lives Maharaj Krishan Kaushik touched and changed. For several generations, he was simply ‘Kaushik saab’. A coach par excellence, a brilliant man manager and unassuming to a fault, Kaushik was a rarity in Indian hockey, someone who knew how to motivate a player to give more than he knew he could.

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Harendra Singh calls him the Bhishma pitamaha of Indian hockey. Dhanraj Pillay has declared him his guru whom he modelled his own game on. Mukesh Kumar owes his marriage to Kaushik. This amalgamation – of a coach, a player par excellence (he was the scorer of the winning goal against Spain in the 1980 Moscow Olympics final) and a friend/father figure – made him unique.

A player’s coach

All his success, however, was simply a product of the kind of person he was. A hard taskmaster and a disciplinarian, he was always a player’s coach, which invariably led to confrontations with the administrative powers that be. So much so that his biggest moment as a coach led to his ouster.

It was 1998; the Indian men’s team had won the Asian Games after 32 years with players as diverse in temperament as Dilip Tirkey, Pillay and Ashish Ballal. To get them all to play together for a common cause required the kind of management skills the IIMs would be proud of. That every single player in that side credits Kaushik for it speaks volumes of the respect he earned. When six players were ousted for demanding better treatment and match fees, he stood up for them and was also shown the door — such was his conviction in his players.

“What good is a coach if he cannot stand up for his team?” he would often say. Kaushik, in many ways, was what Harendra would eventually become – someone obsessed with improving Indian hockey even at the cost of family time over years, someone whose obsession was independent of age, gender or stage and was only focused on performance.

Transcending gender gap

There are very few hockey coaches across the world who have managed to transcend the gender gap. Ric Charlesworth is one, Carlos Retegui is another. Kaushik belongs to that elite list.

If the 1998 Asiad was his crowning glory with the men, the year 2006 saw him take the women to a silver at the Commonwealth Games and bronze at the Asian Games against higher-ranked, stronger opponents. He also helped the team win a gold at the 2003 Afro-Asian Games, the 2004 Asia Cup gold and a silver at the 2009 Asia Cup. It needs to be remembered that, unlike the men, women’s hockey is far stronger in Asia, and India used to often be among the lower-ranked sides. But rankings never really did matter for Kaushik.

What mattered was performance and perseverance. And he could be blunt enough to tick off anyone on field for that. Soft-spoken at all times with a smile and an openness and warmth that made you comfortable asking even the most inane question, he replied with seriousness and never ridiculed. Kaushik was equally capable of giving his players an earful. And girls were no different.

M. K. Kaushik (left) was known for his speed and thrust as a player.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

It needs to be remembered that most girls in Indian hockey come from the hinterland and are unsure of expressing themselves. Kaushik’s biggest contribution was to make them confident. He didn’t pull back from using the choicest of words with them and encouraged them to step up to stronger and fiercer opponents.

Those attributes, ironically, came back to haunt him in 2010 when he was accused of sexual harassment and faced an enquiry. Though he had detractors who criticised his methodology and questioned his credibility and intentions, this was a charge that shocked almost everyone who knew him.

A few months after the incident, and my marriage, I had gone to his home with my husband. Not knowing how others would react, we tried asking for the address and not the name inside the colony gates. What we got was a group of neighbours, every few steps, not only guiding us to the Kaushiks’ house, but insisting how absolutely ridiculous it was to even think of these charges. Just before we were to leave, his wife pressed a small silver coin in my hand, insisting a girl never leaves empty-handed on her first visit after marriage. It’s tradition.

A changed man

If the incident sounds incongruous, that’s perhaps because one doesn’t expect these things at such times. But that’s just how he was — firm in his convictions of doing what’s right. Nothing came of the case; Kaushik was given a clean chit and by 2013 he was back in the national coaching set-up, this time with the men’s team. As a coach, he continued to guide youngsters at all levels, even being part of the 2014 Asian Games-winning men’s team.

After retiring from the Haryana Sports department, he worked as a technical consultant and coach at the MP Hockey Academy and then with the National Hockey Academy in Delhi. The Indian women’s team did badly at the 2010 CWG and several members admitted later, privately, that it was karma. Barring some seniors, most did not even know what Kaushik had been accused of. One of the newcomers in the side back then was current captain Rani Rampal.

Indian hockey coach M. K. Kaushik explaining some points to the girls during a practice match in New Delhi.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

But that incident, deep down, changed the man. He was never the same after that. The helpfulness was there but tinged with caution. He would smile but it was often forced. He would still welcome everyone, but his words would be measured. There was a fear that was uncharacteristic of the man everyone knew till then.

“We players from our batch used to tell him often that it was long past but we could see that he was not the same ever again. It broke him and took away his fighting spirit,” Pritam admits. A heart attack subdued him further.

Since the news of his death, Rani has been trying to accept it. “I am still in shock, I had spoken to him about 15 days back and he had said he was confident of our team doing well at Tokyo. He was my coach when I made my India debut, he was my father in the team. How can he go so suddenly,” she cried. “He came to my new house last month and spent the whole day. This is a bad dream, I keep thinking someone will call and say it’s fake news,” Pritam adds.

His plans for the future included coaching kids at rural hockey centres. Sadly, that’s one dream that will remain unfulfilled.