It's far-fetched, yet close enough: Indian hockey is rather like a black hole, especially for coaches. With eight Olympic gold medals, wrists that turn like a turbine wind-mill and skills that spell magic, it mystifies, entices and tantalises from afar. Like a black hole, it is also dense, the point of no return, and yet some of the world's best coaches can't resist or escape the gravitational pull of it.
Australia's Graham Reid is the latest to be pulled in. After his appointment as the chief coach of India's men's hockey team, he said, "Every coach secretly desires to coach India", and he was right, going by history.
Since the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which was the last time India won an Olympic gold for hockey, our team has changed 34 coaches" including interim coaches of the likes of Pargat Singh, Mir Ranjan Negi, AK Bansal " according to hockey statistician BG Joshi. But the interesting bit is that if you include coaches who returned for another go at the job, it's a stupendous 51 times. Topping the list of coaches coming back to sit on the hot seat again are Balkishen Singh and Harendra Singh, at four times each.
Why do coaches get sucked in, year after year, ploughing through failure, humiliation, sackings and the ignominy of it all, especially foreign ones who have other options? Former Indian coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran, the last Indian captain to have won an Olympic gold puts it down to a high salary and low accountability for foreign coaches. "They just come and go," he says. "Yes, coaches like Terry Walsh should never have been sacked. But there are others who should never have stepped foot in India."
Bhaskaran believes Reid can do a good job. "On the face of it, he is coming in from a position in the Dutch team so understands it. But the crucial bit is, does he understand what is happening in Indian hockey, and who will tell him?"
The former Indian captain's argument is that in the entire coaching structure, there is no Indian. "Shivendra Singh is too low down the order to rock the boat. So why couldn't they bring in Harendra who knows and understands the Indian players? You can keep (assistant coach) Chris Ciriello with no international coaching experience but not an eight-year experienced International Hockey Federation-certified coach (Harendra) with Graham Reid?"
A former Indian captain, who didn't want to be named, said the reason many foreign coaches make India their destination comes down to three factors: high pay, not much attention or fame in their own country, and the potential to rewrite history if they achieved something with the Indian team.
For Bhaskaran, however, it is unlikely that anything extraordinary will be achieved. "If we keep things constant and remain around fifth and sixth, that would be an achievement." His reasoning is that in a team where players keep changing from tournament to tournament, it is difficult to have consistency.
"You played a World Cup with Hardik Singh who was completely at sea and dropped Vivek Prasad? And you dropped Rupinder Pal Singh when he wasn't injured? If he wasn't good enough for the World Cup, then don't pick him any longer. And will the management structure sitting in Hockey India explain how Varun Kumar is better than Rupinder Pal?"
Bhaskaran's advice to Reid is not to take the qualifiers lightly and to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors. "In fact, he (Reid) should speak to Terry"he'll get the best advice." Bhaskaran wants Reid to take the help of Indian greats such as Ajit Pal Singh.
"Ask Ajit Pal Singh to speak to the midfielders. That man has won a World Cup. Agreed, the game is faster but opening up space and skill is the same. Even Ric (Charlesworth, Australian player and coach) says Ajit Pal is the best he has seen."
With the previous foreign coaches, winning percentages have never crossed 50 per cent in major certified tournaments outside of the Azlan Shah Cup. Under coach Roelant Oltmans, India played 43 matches, winning 20, drawing seven and losing 16. Under Michael Nobbs, India played 30, winning 10, drawing seven and losing 13. With Brasa it was 18 matches, with nine wins, two draws and seven losses, and under Terry Walsh India played 24 matches with 11 wins, three draws and 10 losses.
Under Bhaskaran, India played 38 matches with 16 victories, six draws and 16 losses.
The results have never been extraordinary under any foreign coach. But neither has there been any consistency in terms of giving any coach " Indian or foreign " enough time. Bhaskaran doesn't believe things will change. "What if we don't qualify for Tokyo? Will we look for another coach? Till when will this ridiculous, bizarre dance happen?"
Bhaskaran still has hope that things might change under Reid, and has some advice for him. "He has to look beyond Bangalore. Sometimes I feel that inside the SAI (Sports Authority of India) centre they are creating some world-beating formula. Reid needs to travel with the team domestically and play matches. Let the fans also see the progress."
A few days ago, when the first pictures of a black hole were published, Avery Broderick, a physicist at the University of Waterloo, speaking to an audience in Washington D.C, said: "We know there must be something more. Black holes are one of the places to look for answers."
Graham Reid better find some fast.
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