Hockey World Cup 2018, K Arumugam column: India find hope in Harendra Singh's flexibility and players' versatility

K Arumugam
Today's hockey fans are certainly not wonderstruck at seeing Indian players don versatile roles across the pitch. Harendra Singh is the rare ‘desi’ coach who doesn’t believe in a fixed format but celebrates modernity and flexibility. Here lies the great Indian hope.

When the coach of the Indian junior team, PA Raphael, was summoned to the office of the then ruling power of the sport, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), he wasn't the least bit aware of what was in store for him.

The team for the Junior World Cup qualifiers had already been announced. It was the very team he had nurtured for two years which was set to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the next day.

Within the hour, he was sacked. Reason: He wasn't toeing the traditional line. Raphael told the IHF and its selectors, headed by a sitting Member of Parliament, bluntly that his team would have no forwards or defenders. Everyone had to play every role on the pitch.

So, out went Raphael and in came a 70-year-old Olympian M Rajagopal, a selector, in his place. A comic case of a guest turning out to be the bridegroom!

Raphael, an engineer-turned-hockey brain, was one of the earliest proponents of total hockey in Asia. His efforts, now yielding dividends for Indian hockey, were resisted in the past.

Raphael suffered the same fate as his more illustrious compatriot and double Olympian Balkishen Singh.

Balkishen succeeded Dhyan Chand as chief coach of the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, but was quick to sense the theories of the likes of Horst Wein, the German hockey guru who settled in Spain, are gaining ground in Europe with collateral damage to the Asian brand of hockey.

Wein, through his classic book 'Science of Hockey', strategised solid counters to the artistry based position-conscious, forward-oriented Asian hockey systems. Defence was the fulcrum, penalty corners on counters were the success mantras for Wein.

The 3-3-3-1 playing format, that came into being in the late 1970s, was a result of his findings and theories.

Balkishen wanted to move with the times. He fortified the midfield with added manpower and assigned ball retrieval roles to forwards €" a sort of all-rounder roles that all in our national team do today but which was an anathema to traditionalists then.

The enterprising and innovative coach was accused of demolishing the time-tested pyramid 5-3-2-1 format and drew flak for copying the Europeans. The Olympians, merely coaching masquerades, found it unacceptable.

Balkishen, who enjoyed the gift of the gab, once famously replied: "Coaches are like watches which never match!"

There was no space for such nuances and the visionary, like Galileo Galilei who said the earth was not flat, faced resentment no end.

When Balkishen's boys flopped at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (three wins against four defeats in a seventh-place finish), the traditionalists bayed for his blood. He and his concept were finished once and for all. Hindsight proves how his protege Kim Sang Ryul, present China coach, transformed Asian hockey when he guided his country South Korea from around the mid-1980s.

In Bhubaneswar, his novices China drew with England.

India strictly followed its own 'time-tested' concept and was rigid in mental outlook. The 1980s brought defeat after defeat and the dismal trend continued through the 1990s until Cedric D'Souza entered the reckoning.

The Mumbai-based coach thought in the same manner as Raphael and executed things as would Balkishen.

His 'total' hockey brought successes at the 1994 Sydney World Cup and the 1995 Berlin Champions Trophy but, deserted by luck and momentary lapses, endured failure at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where the team finished at eighth position €" the lowest in history at that point in time.

With all and sundry pining for "total success", read winning the gold medal, Cedric had to go. Failing to gain full support from senior, but indisciplined 'stars' in the team who resented being excluded from the first eleven besides showing an unwillingness to carry out assigned roles, the master coach had to leave.

As a result, Indian hockey plunged into chaos for the next decade. It climaxed when India failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years when they came up short for the 2008 Beijing Games.

This shook the collective consciousness of Indian hockey and it ushered in an era of foreign coaches to take over the national team. Total hockey in its modern avatar (where fitness is the key) came along with them.

Imported coaching brains €" Jose Brasa (2010), Michael Nobbs (2011-early 2014), Terry Walsh (2014), Roelant Oltmans (2015-2017) and others like Paul van Ass (2016) changed the way the team was selected, played and performance evaluated.

Indian fans watched with disbelief as defenders VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh played like forwards, not only in the 2011 Lanco Hockey 9s and Hockey India League, but also in various rounds of the Hockey World League.

And today we view the same propensity in Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh €" defenders all, doing duties which were once the prerogative of forwards.

When a Varun Kumar effects a high scoop, no one now wonders how and why his colleague in the defence, Harmanpreet Singh, receives the ball in the rival circle. Or, none is wonderstruck when another defender Kothajit Singh, who replaced Rupinder Pal Singh for the Odisha World Cup, cleverly schemes along the rival goal line and passes the ball with such guile that enables Simranjeet Singh score to put India 2-1 up and gain a valuable point from a 2-2 draw against Rio Olympic tormenter Belgium the other night.

The present generation of hockey fans are certainly not wonderstruck at seeing Indian players don versatile roles across the pitch. But it is their fitness levels that draw admiration.

Harendra Singh is the rare 'desi' coach. He doesn't believe in a fixed format but celebrates modernity, flexibility and totalitarianism in approach, executing his theories with consummate ease.

Here lies the great Indian hope.

Also See: Hockey World Cup 2018, K Arumugam column: Harendra Singh's India up against history in Bhubaneswar

Hockey World Cup 2018: Drag flick woes, defensive fumbles mark India's scrappy opening win over South Africa

Hockey World Cup Memories: Former captain Ajitpal Singh recounts leading India to title glory in 1975

Read more on Sports by Firstpost.