Harendra Singh looks relaxed for a man with possibly the toughest job in Indian sports, the coach of the men’s national hockey team. At the Major Dhyan Chand National Hockey stadium in New Delhi, where 45 of India’s top hockey players are attending the one-and-a-half-month preparatory camp that started on 16 March, Harendra has his task cut out.
India, eight-time Olympic gold medal winners, failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics for the first time since their debut at the Olympics in 1928. Harendra’s first assignment, with the 2012 London Olympics looming, is to make sure there is no repeat of 2008.
Men at work : The Indian hockey team warms up before practice on the newly laid astroturf at the Major Dhyan Chand stadium in New Delhi; and (right) Harendra Singh orchestrates a training session.
“Not qualifying for Beijing was definitely one of our darkest moments,” Harendra says. “But that is history, and we have to learn from it. This team is confident going into the qualifiers. Historically, London represents a watershed moment, since the first Olympics after India’s independence took place there in 1948. So we are desperate to compete at the London Olympics.”
Harendra took over after the team’s Spanish coach Jose Brasa was sacked in November under controversial circumstances—Brasa complained about the lack of infrastructure as well as not having a say in team selection. The camp in New Delhi is the first since then, and Harendra, who was Brasa’s deputy, was hastily named chief coach just days before the camp started. India will play their qualifiers on home soil in February.
“We’ve definitely lost a lot of time, because most of the major teams around the world have started preparing for the Olympics since the Asian Games (in November),” says Harendra. “My main aim is to quickly get the players to their peak fitness level, and build a positive atmosphere in the dressing room.”
A major task considering that the game in India is still reeling from a protracted administrative battle, with two different bodies—Hockey India (HI) and the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF)—both claiming control of the sport. The Indian Olympic Association recognizes HI, while the Union sports ministry has sided with the IHF. A Supreme Court intervention was required to allow HI to select the players for the camp.
“The players shouldn’t worry or think about off-field controversies and focus on training,” says forward Rajpal Singh, who also captained the side for much of the 2010 season. “That’s what we are doing here.”
At the camp, GPS devices, heart-rate monitors, and a video camera constantly on duty are technologically aiding preparations. The team is also reaping the benefits of a brand new astroturf, as well as spacious air-conditioned changing rooms and a gym, all put in place before the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
“My approach to training is a medley of my own methods and the ones we learnt from Brasa,” says Harendra. “We are focusing a lot on the one-touch game and our defence, which remains our greatest weakness, especially man-to-man defending. We need an improvement by at least 30-40%. So, to that end, we are paying a lot of attention to the equipment we are using.”
Before the Olympic qualifiers, the Indian team will also play the Azlan Shah Cup (India were joint winners with Malaysia last year) from 5 May in Malaysia, and then the prestigious Champions Trophy, featuring the world’s Top 8 teams, in December in New Delhi.
“Our focus remains the Olympic qualifiers,” says Rajpal, “but the Azlan Shah will be a good practice run for us, and the Champions Trophy will be the perfect preparatory ground because all the top teams will be there. We need to play as many matches as possible to peak for the qualifiers.”
Arjun Halappa will lead the side for the Azlan Shah Cup, which will also be a good opportunity for India to judge the calibre of the Asian teams that will be fighting for an Olympic berth against India.
“Delhi was the perfect choice for a long camp, because the weather conditions at the Azlan Shah Cup will be similar,” says Rajpal. “The Champions Trophy will be played on these grounds. The Olympic qualifiers will probably be played here as well.”
India’s record in controversy-ridden 2010 ranged from poor to mediocre. They finished last at the World Cup, but bounced back to reach the final of the Commonwealth Games, where they were thrashed by Australia. At the Asian Games in China, they finished third.
“One of the major reasons for the inconsistency has been the lack of a rotation system,” says Harendra. “Whenever the team goes on the field, they need to possess a fresh pair of legs. That makes equal attention and opportunity to perform a prerequisite. If you rely only on 15 players, it’s difficult to sustain performance levels in a modern hockey tournament.”
Harendra says building a team is a long process, and he will only work at improving the team one step at a time. With the future of the current team and management hinged on the Olympic qualifiers less than 10 months away, Harendra is running short of time.
Anupam Verma contributed to this story.