Junior India hockey coach Harendra Singh was termed a ‘Bihari rickshaw puller’, traitor, and criticised for not being an Olympian. The barbs hurt but his passion to make India world champions stayed intact.
On Sunday, Harendra’s advice to Harjeet Singh and Co did the trick and India won their second Junior Hockey World Cup, silencing critics. Harendra spoke to HT about the game and his future.
How satisfying is the win?
It is the biggest moment of my life as I was called a ‘Bihari rickshaw wala’ when I started playing hockey. Even experts believed I would destroy Indian hockey’s prospects. After 2005, when my team missed bronze at the Junior World Cup, everyone was baying for my blood. The ‘Bihari’ has now proved his worth.
Has the title helped settle scores?
The victory has silenced critics. I was waiting for this day as I come from an area where hockey is not played. My application in Indian Airlines was rejected with the words: “Ab Bihari bhi hockey khelega”. That was for a R250 stipend. I decided I will work for Indian Airlines. The legendary Ashok Kumar came to Mumbai to hand over my appointment letter. I am ‘ziddi’ (stubborn).
How big was the challenge?
I told my wife this was a do-or-die situation. If I didn’t win the World Cup this time, I would have never watched an India team play again. I used my experience of 18-20 years here. I have noted down every moment of my life till this victory.
What is your source of inspiration?
My mentor in France, Tony Fernandes, friend Dhanraj Pillay, and my wife inspired me to take up the challenge. When India finished 12th at the London Olympics, these three people inspired me at the dinner table and asked me to think something special for Indian hockey.
Were you scared of losing during the World Cup here?
We won the 2014 Johor Bahru tournament and then beat Australia by six goals. After that I told the boys they could become world champions. They not only took my words as a challenge but made everyone smile by winning the cup.
What was your success mantra?
I didn’t want to teach the boys only skills as it is just one element. Since 2014, I have created a team of 18 and not a few players with individual skills. I was always taunted for not being an Olympian. I was an ordinary player but when I was dropped from the Olympic side, there were many in the team who were inferior.
Tell us something about your journey from 2005 to 2016
When I got (India senior goalkeeper) Sreejesh, he came without pads. A player I had mentored refused to give pads for Sree’s trials. I managed to arrange them and told him he had to play for India one day. I don’t want to go into the details of what happened in 2005 because of umpiring. I still believe the (bronze) medal belonged to us.
I consider Ric Charlesworth as the guru of coaching. His son Jonathan was playing for Australia then. When I was crying after losing the semis to Australia, he came to me and said: “Harry, don’t cry. The FIH has robbed you of the World Cup.” We were made to lose the hard-line match.
Can we see you as coach at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020?
I can’t say anything now. One thing is for sure that many of my boys will be there for the 2020 Olympics. I need to spend time with my wife and kids. I can’t take a decision for myself but if given a chance I will bring a medal in 2020 for sure.