Harendra Singh: Anatomy of an 'obsessive' coach

The Junior World Cup has been a catharsis for coach Harendra Singh. In charge when the Indian team, considered favourite for the title, missed out on a medal in 2005, the 'non-Olympian' coach in Indian hockey has been on a mission. On December 18, 2016, he completed it.

Harendra has always been emotional, and unapologetic about it.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

The Junior World Cup has been a catharsis for coach Harendra Singh. In charge when the Indian team, considered favourite for the title, missed out on a medal in 2005, the 'non-Olympian' coach in Indian hockey has been on a mission. On December 18, 2016, he completed it.

Through this entire period, Harendra Singh has sustained on pagalpan and junoon (madness and obsession). Indeed, the success of his team has largely been a result of his single-minded devotion and dedication to the sport for the past 18 years – "September 13, 1998 was the day I took to coaching," he remembers.

Harendra has always been emotional, and unapologetic about it. His caller tune begins with, aasaan hai likhna watan ke liye, kabhi seekho mitna watan ke liye (it's easy to write about the nation, learn to die for the nation). There is never a hello at the other end, it's always Jai Hind. Many people may consider these as overt, unnecessary symbols of patriotism but Harendra has been like this for long before the surge of nationalism across the country.

“This is my obsession, my madness. I have no house of my own. Whatever I have earned, approximately Rs. 39 lakh, every penny has been spent on coaching equipment, it's all because of my pagalpan. Credit goes to my wife Samiksha -- she sacrificed a lot, I didn't know she even sold her jewellery to run the house. My family sacrificed. I am lucky to have a wife like this and a friend like Dhanraj, who got me into coaching,” an emotional Harendra says.

In 2009, as then India coach and months after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, Harendra had declared in public during the Asia Cup that he was not in favour of India-Pakistan ties, losing both his temper and tears. He did that again, taking responsibility and resigning after India lost in the semifinal of the Asian Games. Against Spain in the quarterfinals here, he screamed, jumped, cried and finally sunk in relief after winning.

The thorn that pricked

But 2005 remained a thorn through it all. “I don't want to go into the details of whatever happened in 2005 because of umpiring. I still believe wo medal mera tha (that medal was mine). Ric Charlesworth is the guru of hockey coaching, no one is bigger than him. His son Jonathan was playing for Australia then. When I was crying after losing the semis to Australia, he came and said, 'Harry don't cry, the FIH has robbed you of the World Cup'.

“I was abused so much when we came back. I had insisted on picking the players I wanted. I kept waiting for Sardar Singh for one week, he was in the US but did not come. I was called a traitor of the country. It was written that if Indian hockey has to be saved then Harendra has to be removed.

"It was a big story printed on the front page of a big newspaper and I want to salute the person who wrote it because that day, my wife cried for the first time and said, you don't have to go into hockey again unless you can come back a champion,” he says, breaking down.

A glass of water and some minutes later, his composure back, Harendra continues: “That day I decided I had to be an FIH coach and joined 14 courses from my own money. That day I became a fanatic that I was no Olympian but I will create Olympians. I was an average player but better than many who went for the 1996 Olympics. I have produced 20-25 Olympians so far. But tab ki ek khalish (hurt) aaj tak thi, because my World Cup was in front of me and I could not get it. I had to wait for 10 years but I finally got it, there is only relief,” he adds.

There is a wistful look on his face. Harendra has gone back to Rotterdam, 11 years back. He has been picking off his targets from that tournament here – Spain, then Australia. His back-up goalkeeper there was PR Sreejesh and the current Indian captain declares Harendra as the best coach in India today.

“This team is what it is because of Harry bhai's dedication and madness. He didn't need to do this after 2005 but he picked himself up, started from scratch and built a new team; first in 2013 and now. He is the best modern Indian hockey coach,” Sreejesh declares.

Learning from the best

There is more, Harendra Singh had promised to talk after the final and he wants to purge his emotions. “I come from a region where hockey is not played. I was told to my face by so-called experts that if now Bihari rickshawalas come into hockey then Indian hockey is going to be destroyed. Maine bahut beizzati sahi hai hockey me, but I am also stubborn. My application in Indian Airlines was thrown out, saying "Ab Bihari bhi hockey khelega?"

"That was for a Rs. 250 stipend. I then decided I will work for Indian Airlines one day and the legendary Ashok Kumar came to Bombay to give my appointment letter. I am ziddi.”

All this did not stop him from being present at every major tournament, at home or abroad, by himself, taking notes, observing the world's best and learning from them. In a country where mere participation in Olympics is considered an achievement, Harendra has had to face double the struggle to prove himself. “This will continue, regardless of what happened here. In this country, anyone who plays an Olympics or gets an Arjuna Award thinks it is his birthright to administer or coach in India.

"I have always faced that. What hurts most is that the same 3-4 people keep questioning "how can Harendra get charge, what is his experience, what is his Olympic experience". This Olympian thing is a mentality that needs to be changed but I cannot do that,” he shrugs.

He has done enough, though. At a time when coaching in India meant jaan laga do Harendra was studying about use of GPS during training. When many of our Olympians didn't know how to operate a computer, he invested in ipads. Even today, he uses software to analyse games; a technique that might be normal elsewhere but remains a novelty in India.

He first spoke of fitness in attacking hockey almost a decade back when the world was trying to follow the European style of defensive games. He advocated the advantages of 'outletting' in his FIH project when most top teams did not know of the term.

Ask him if we could see him as India coach at 2020 Olympics, and Harendra allows himself a wry smile. “You think there is space for me?” he asks in return. After all, it would be his boys who would form the core of the team then. “I think I need to spend time with my wife and kids but I don't think there is anything for me. If get a chance I will bring a medal in 2020,” he says in passing.

He admits he is drained enough to think of a break from coaching young boys. It is too emotional, he says, there is too much of attachment and personal investment involved. He has given enough players to justify his worth. The likes of V. S. Vinaya, Adrian D'Souza, Arjun Halappa, Tushar Khandker, PR Sreejesh and many more are his contribution to the game. But he isn't averse to coaching coaches now. Not the ones already into it, though.

“We have given great players but not great coaches. Without coaches we cannot have players. My target now is to be something like a coaches' mentor. I want to go to the upcoming generation. I want to ask them to decide whether they want to play or be a coach. Unless you have your own coaches you cannot execute any long-term planning or vision,” he says.

It's getting late – rather, early morning, after a whole night of celebrations – but Harendra wants to make one final statement. “Hockey is an intelligent man's game else it would be called soccer. I never answer the boys, I only ask questions. Only then will they think for themselves. Now they understand the game.

"Before the senior team went for Rio, I told him I will give you gold. I said I have made this statement because I have very good 33 shoulders that will fight for me at any given time. And this lot, I can die for them,” he walks off, a man finally at peace with himself. And with his pagalpan.