The pain of not getting past the quarter-finals in 2018 is still there inside Harendra, and it was ignited when he saw India give it away in the January 22 crossover match this time and succumb to the pressure exerted by New Zealand, which kept its cool. best in the sudden-death shootout to win 5-4 and push India out of title contention.
Harendra, who currently lives in California, criticized what he saw from the stands at Kalinga Stadium. India squandered a two-goal lead twice as they trailed 2-0 and 3-1, which allowed the Black Sticks to not only come back but take control of the game before advance to the quarter-finals.
Hockey World Cup: Everything that went wrong for India
Speaking to TimesofIndia.com for an in-depth analysis of India’s sorry campaign, Harendra raised some pointed questions.
How does it feel to be back home and especially in Bhubaneswar where you made a lot of memories?
It’s a privilege to be back here at this iconic stadium (Kalinga). Any coach who comes here gets goosebumps because the people here know their hockey.
How long has it been since your last visit here?
After 2018, this is my first time here. Of course, a year and a half ago, I moved to the United States. But I can’t be far from Bhubaneswar when it comes to hockey.
Like so many Indian fans, you too must have been disappointed to see India fail to qualify for the quarter-finals…
If you ask me, 1.5 billion people are disappointed because we had created a momentum, I would say, from the 2018 Champions Trophy (silver medal) and carried it to the Tokyo Olympics (medal bronze). But somewhere after that, we lost that momentum. It was not necessary to fall into the trap of the adversary (New Zealander). But we did it and paid the price in the pre-quarterfinals (crossovers).
Hockey World Cup: Mixed response from fans after India fail to qualify for quarter-finals
Where do you think we failed against New Zealand?
I think there are many areas. We won an Olympic medal in Tokyo after 41 years. It was historic. But your cycle for the next Olympics begins the very next day. When I saw the Indian team announced for this World Cup, I was skeptical because it lacked the players who can win you games and hold the team (together). We felt it not only against New Zealand but throughout the tournament.
Two of the heroes of the 2016 Junior World Cup triumph, when you were the team coach, were Simranjeet Singh and Gurjant Singh. Both have been skipped for this World Cup. In fact, Simranjeet had also revived India’s Tokyo Olympics campaign after the 7-1 loss to Australia. Did we miss them?
We missed players like Simranjeet, Sumit, Gurjant, Jugraj a lot. Everyone talks about Captain Harmanpreet Singh being out of shape (on drag flicks). I don’t blame him. Previously, he shared the responsibility (of shooting penalty corners) with Rupinder Pal Singh (now retired). Here, this poor guy alone had all this responsibility on his shoulders. We made a bad decision by appointing him captain. He takes corners, he has to go out, play a role in attack and also I was surprised to see him in a shootout (against New Zealand). If someone like Jugraj would have been on the team when Harmanpreet’s drag flicks weren’t working, then the coach could have tried Jugraj. And if he had scored a few goals, Harmanpreet would have felt better. As an outsider and observer, I believe those combinations were missing. It was obvious that Harmanpreet was (feeling the pressure) on the pitch. I have never seen Harmanpreet argue with the referees, claiming every ball. He’s such a cool customer.
Were you surprised to see four young people — Sukhjeet Singh, Rajkumar Pal, Abhishek and Shamcher Singh – being asked to take the shootout instead of some of the experienced players like Manpreet Singh and Akashdeep Singh?
It’s not about picking the wrong combination. When you train, you decide who those five players will be. The coach certainly plays a big role. But why do you have senior players with 250, 300, 400 caps? This is the time when you should step up and take responsibility. I was surprised that players like Manpreet and Akashdeep weren’t chosen (for the shootout) or maybe they declined, we don’t know. But that was the time when Akashdeep, Manpreet, Mandeep and even Lalit (should have taken the blame). If you combine the caps of these four players, it’s almost 1000. That’s big. So pressure played a role. As a coach, I don’t accept these things. When you are a senior, play the role of a senior.
The team buckled under pressure in the final quarter against New Zealand. Do you think this team needs a mental trainer to handle such situations?
There’s been a lot of debate about this before…sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It is a matter of decision making. We weren’t making the right decisions. We were 3-1 up and then New Zealand were down to just 10 men (in the last six minutes) but even then it was New Zealand in complete control. How is it possible? This means that we have to work on our defense. Every second that passes, we lose; and each time they received the ball, they opted for the vertical (air balloons). So what should we have done? We should have kept the ball in their half rather than our half. Of course, Graham Reid is a seasoned coach. He had to say those things. But why was there no plan B? The team has to answer a lot of questions
Where does the squad go from here as you are unlikely to see players like PR Sreejesh and Manpreet at the next World Cup in 2026?
I think young people should try their luck. Let’s be very critical. It was the best opportunity for them. They should have stepped in and delivered. I’m not saying they didn’t deliver but my expectations were more than they delivered. My advice would be not to opt for “major surgery”; we just need minor fixes and need to stay focused on the Asian Games. Its very important. If you miss (the Olympic qualification from) the Asian Games, it will be very hard for Paris 2024.
What would be your contributions if you were asked for suggestions after this World Cup fiasco?
Players who are out of the system should be reintroduced and given another chance so that there is healthy competition within the group. There is no competition at all if you only have 24-25 (players). Which players will pose a challenge? There are only players like Simranjeet. Also, invest in juniors. Where are the 18 players we have selected for the 2021 Junior World Cup? (only one of those 18, Vivek Sagar Prasad, is in the current World Cup squad). Either these players were selected incorrectly, or they were not kept in the system. So someone should be responsible for it. It’s a process, not instant coffee.