The pain of not making it past the quarter-finals of 2018 was still there in Harendra, and it intensified as he watched India lose in this January 22 friendly and succumb to New’s pressure. Zealand, who have kept their spirits up. better in the surprise shootout to win 5-4 and push India out of the title contention.
Harendra, who now lives in California, criticized what he saw from the stands of Kalinga Stadium. India twice lost a 2-goal lead when leading 2-0 and 3-1, thereby helping the Blacks not only come back but also gain control of the game before entering the quarterfinals.
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Speaking to TimesofIndia.com for an in-depth analysis of India’s apology campaign, Harendra raised some razor-sharp questions.
How does it feel to be back in your hometown and especially Bhubaneswar, where you have so many memories?
It’s an honor to be back here at this iconic (Kalinga) stadium. Any coach who comes here gets goosebumps because everyone here knows their hockey game.
How long has it been since you were last here?
After 2018, this is my first time coming here. Of course, since the last year and a half I have moved to America. But I can’t stay away from Bhubaneswar when it comes to hockey.
Like so many Indian fans, you must have been very disappointed to see India not making it to the quarterfinals…
If you ask me, 1.5 billion people are disappointed because we created momentum, I would say, from the 2018 Champions Trophy (silver medal) and bring it to the Tokyo Olympics (bronze). But somewhere after that we lost that momentum. We should not have fallen into the trap of the opponent (New Zealand). But we made it and paid the price for it in the previous quarter-finals (crossover).
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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. That is history. But your cycle for the next Olympics starts the next day. When I saw the Indian team announced for this World Cup, I was skeptical because the players who can win your matches and keep the team (together) were absent. We feel that not only against New Zealand but throughout the whole tournament.
Two of the heroes of the 2016 Junior World Championship championship, when you are the team coach, are Simranjeet Singh and Gurjant Singh. Both were omitted for this World Cup. In fact, Simranjeet revived India’s Tokyo Olympics campaign after a 7-1 loss to Australia. Did we miss them?
We miss players like Simranjeet, Sumit, Gurjant, Jugraj a lot. Everyone is talking about the captain Harmanpreet Singh not being in form (on the drag phase). I don’t blame him. Before that, he shared responsibility (taking the corners) with Rupinder Pal Singh (now retired). Here, that poor guy alone shouldered all that responsibility on his shoulders. We made the wrong decision to appoint him as captain. He’s taking corners, he’s got to make the runs down, play the attacking role and I was surprised to see him take the penalty (against New Zealand). If someone like Jugraj was on the team when Harmanpreet’s pulls weren’t working, the coach might have tried Jugraj. And if he scores a few goals, then Harmanpreet will feel better. As an outsider and an observer, I believe those combinations were missing. It was clear that Harmanpreet was (feeling the pressure) on the pitch. I’ve never seen Harmanpreet argue with the referee, taking every ball. He is a great customer.
Were you surprised to see four young men — Sukhjeet Singh, Rajkumar Pal, Abhishek and Shamsher Singh – asked to take a penalty shootout instead of some experienced players like Manpreet Singh and Akashdeep Singh?
It is not about choosing the wrong combination. When you train, you decide who will be those five players. Coaches certainly play a big role. But what do you have high-class players with 250, 300, 400 caps? That’s when you should step up and take responsibility. I’m surprised that players like Manpreet and Akashdeep weren’t picked (for the shootout) or maybe they declined, we don’t know about that. But this is the moment when Akashdeep, Manpreet, Mandeep and even Lalit (should have taken responsibility). If you combine the exponents of these four players, it will be close to 1000. That’s a big number. So pressure did play a role. As a coach, I don’t accept these things. When you’re the senior, play the senior.
The team withered under pressure in the last half against New Zealand. Do you think this team needs a mental coach to handle such situations?
There’s been a lot of debate about this before…sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about decision making. We didn’t make the right decisions. We took a 3-1 lead, then New Zealand played with 10 men (in the last 6 minutes), but even then, New Zealand was in complete control. How is that possible? That means we have to work on defense. Every second that passed we lost; and every time they get the ball, they will go vertically (balls in the air). So what should we do? We should have had the ball in their half rather than ours. Of course, Graham Reid is a seasoned coach. He must have said these things. But why not have a plan B? The group had to answer a lot of questions
Where will the team go from here, because you probably won’t see players like PR Sreejesh and Manpreet at the next World Cup in 2026?
I believe young players should take advantage of their opportunities. Let’s be very important. This is their best chance. They should step up and deliver. I’m not saying they haven’t delivered but my expectations were more than what they delivered. My advice is not to do a ‘major surgery’; we only require minor repairs and should focus on the Asian Games. That is very important. If you miss (Olympic qualifiers from) Asian Games, it will be difficult for Paris 2024.
What would your input be if you were asked to make suggestions after this World Cup defeat?
Players that are out of the system should be brought back and given another chance to have healthy competition in the group. There will be no competition if you only have 24-25 (players). Who are the players who will pose a challenge? Only players like Simranjeet. Also, invest in juniors. Where are the 18 players we picked for the Junior World Cup? (only one of those 18, Vivek Sagar Prasad, is in the current World Cup squad). Either those players were chosen wrongly or they were not kept in the system. So someone has to take responsibility for this. It’s a process, not instant coffee.