For years, he has relentlessly sought redemption. Even the apparently ultimate recognition, the Dronacharya Award, in 2012 did not assuage Harendra Singh’s restless soul. Finally, he found it in Lucknow where his dear India won the FIH Junior Men’s World Cup with a hard-earned and well deserved victory over the dangerous Belgium.
The world has changed quite a bit since 2001 when India won the FIH Junior World Cup in Hobart, Australia, for the first time after losing narrowly to Australia in the final at Milton Keynes in England in 1997. The roar of the 17000 fans traversed from the Maj. Dhyan Chand Stadium in Lucknow to social media, players reaching out to fans directly.
Perhaps now, as he approaches the age of 50, the man who says the ‘Tiranga’ (tricolour) is his religion and uses “Jai Hind” as his salutation, may sit down to pen his autobiography. It will be remarkable when he traces his journey from Chhapra in Bihar to being coach of the team that won the FIH Junior Men’s World Cup for the first time since its predecessor claimed it in 2001.
Surely, for a playing and coaching career punctuated by pain, he now has an amazing story to tell.
“I came to Delhi with the same dream as many of his friends from Bihar: To become an IAS or IPS officer,” he once told this writer. But destiny – in the form of his school, Union Academy – had other plans. He was roped in to play for the school team. He rose to be a dependable full back, doing well enough for Mahindras in Bombay (as Mumbai was then known) and Maharashtra to be given the Shiv Chhatrapati Award in 1990.
He moved to Indian Airlines that year and did well for the team in the National Championship to be named among the probable for the 1994 Asian Games. But when he did not make the team that competed in Hiroshima, he was hurt.
Back in 2000, he was chief coach V Baskaran’s assistant when India messed up a chance of making it to the semifinals of the Olympic Games competition after letting Poland score a goal with only 45 seconds left on the clock. It was given to Harendra Singh to find the words to console the distraught players across the pitch in Sydney.
Coaching the Indian team in the 2005 FIH Junior World Cup in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, he helmed a fine bunch. Goalkeeper Adrian d’Souza, Sandeep Singh, Tushar Khandkar, Birender Lakra and reserve custodian PR Sreejesh went on to don India colours with pride. But that team finished fourth, despite leading the semifinal against Australia 2-0 at the half-time. He hurt more.
For years, Indian hockey has had this penchant for appointing former Olympians as coach of the national team. Coaches like PA Raphael and Cedric d’Souza were either treated with disdain or summarily rejected. Even former Olympians like Zafar Iqbal, V Baskaran, MK Kaushik, Pargat Singh and Harcharan Singh were not given long enough stints.
And before long, coaches from overseas were preferred, and Harendra’s brief tryst as National Coach was when he went with the Indian team to the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament in Ipoh, Malaysia, in 2011.
He has remained someone who does not hesitate to speak his heart out, be it against legendary former India captain Pargat Singh or against the Dronacharya award panel that overlooked his claims – he was assistant coach to Jose Brasa when India finished with the silver at the Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi – and preferred to give the honour to Rajinder Singh Jr in 2011.
He quit his assistant coach’s position after India lost to Malaysia in the semifinals of the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. The powers that be were quite upset with him that he had put in his papers ahead of the third-place play-off. To those who have known him as one who speaks his heart out, his emotional outburst came as little surprise.
For, each time he came across someone stereotyping a Bihari as a Bhaiya or a rickshaw puller or a taxi-driver, the man who traces his roots to Chhapra in Saran District seethed. It did not seem to matter to those who taunted him that it was Bihari, Jaipal Singh Munda, who was the first captain of an Indian team at the Olympic Games.
Back in favour in 2014, he took over the mantle of the Indian Junior team one more time. South Africa’s Gregg Clark quit after the disaster of 2013 World Cup in Delhi where India finished a disappointing 10th after being termed favourite. He was handed a bunch of 48 players and working in tandem with the then High-Performance Manager of Hockey India; he drew up a plan.
As an innovative coach, with a readiness to embrace scientific temper, he knit the team as a cohesive unit, making the players realise that it was only collective brilliance that would help it realise the collective dream. It blended as a family, with there being no room for ego, dispute and indiscipline, and thus, no superstar. It such comfort in his skin that let him rope in India’s best goalkeeper PR Sreejesh in a mentoring role in Lucknow.
“Life teaches us so many things. With determination and dedication, we can fill our life with achievement,” says the man who has shown a willingness to admit and learning from mistakes. It is such openness that has rubbed on his wards who have been fearless, confident and unfazed by the reputation of players of other teams.
To be sure, the hurt has punctuated his playing and coaching career but in Harendra Singh’s case, but just over 21 years ago, a violent, full stop loomed over his tryst with hockey.
Playing for Indian Airlines against Punjab Police in the semifinals of Aga Khan Gold Cup in Mumbai in 1995, he inflicted an injury that rendered him hors-de-combat. The right knee suffered a soft tissue injury. The blood clots on the thigh were tell-tale signs of the beating he had taken in the senseless violence that erupted in the Bombay Gymkhana.
“I was aware of the risk of injury when playing, but I had never imagined I would be inflicted such an injury. This was not hockey but something else. It was hardly sporting but a pre-planned attack. And I wondered why I took to hockey,” he recalled. The phone in his Vasant Vihar home rang tirelessly, worried family members calling from Chhapra to persuade him to give up hockey.
His wife Sameeksha, then expecting their first child, Anouksha, encouraged him to continue pursuing his passion. Today, as Anouksha readies for life in Mass Communication and her brother Atharv Singh shines both in academics and his chosen sport, football, Harendra Singh can look back at Sameeksha’s support in the most turbulent of times as a defining moment.
After having learnt to tuck his emotions away mich of the time, Harendra Singh finally shed tears of joy in full public view, having exorcised not a few demons that have plagued him for many years. The lingering moments of pain dissolved in one joyful moment when he wrapped the Tricolour around him with pride. His could finally play his redemption song in his mind.
– This article was published on the author’s blog on December 21, 2016.