How Harendra created hockey's world champions

'HIL is the best thing to happen to Indian hockey' - Harendra (1:56)

Harendra Singh, the coach of the junior hockey team, believes the Indian Hockey League has played a big part in the development of his players. (1:56)

On Tuesday morning, 31 members of a very exclusive WhatsApp group received a message from the moderator. Wishing one of its members Sumit Singh a happy birthday, Harendra Singh also advised that the cake that was to be smeared onto the celebrant's face should be vanilla rather than chocolate. 'Chocolate won't show on your face' the coach of the Indian junior hockey team cheekily suggested.

The text from Harendra would have once been uncharacteristically cheeky. Over the past two and a half years since the group - for members of the Indian junior hockey team - was first created, messages were almost always about the sport: variations on practice timings or motivational quotes. But over the past couple of days the group - originally titled Mission 2016 - contains far more light-hearted banter.

It's also changed its name, as of around 8pm on Sunday evening: It's now 'Champions 2016'.

That's a reference to the team winning the Junior World Cup after a 15-year gap and as its coach Harendra says he is still getting used to the aftermath. "I'm getting called for felicitations and interviews. My bosses at Air India want to meet me and so do all my relatives. [Before Sunday] life was far simpler. I just had to focus on hockey," he says.

"Right from the start, I said it's my way or the highway. If you want to become world champions, I will make you world champions but you have to do things the way I want."

Indeed Harendra says he is receiving praise from unexpected quarters. "Several of the European coaches came up to me in the world cup and asked me what I was doing with the team. They couldn't believe India were playing the way they did. They felt this was a different team. According to them, we were playing a mixture of Australian and Indian hockey".

The most cherished praise though came from Australia's Ric Charlesworth - 'The Bhishma pitamah of hockey' according to Harendra. "I met him with the junior team when we had gone for a tour of Australia in November. He saw the team play and said the structure was very good. That made me really happy," says Harendra.

Back to basics

Sunday's win in Lucknow was the culmination of a journey that began two and a half years ago, when Harendra first met the group of youngsters at New Delhi's Dhyan Chand stadium. "25 April 2014," he says, the memory seared in his brain.

The first session wasn't something they were expecting. "It wasn't the most happy introduction. Right from the start, I said it's my way or the highway. If you want to become world champions, I will make you world champions but you have to do things the way I want," he says.

After a rather intense introduction, the players were taken aback when Harendra had them perform a rather simple drill. Roll the ball, stop it, look up and then make a pass. "It was a different kind of masala than what they thought they would get. They must have thought I was crazy," recalls Harendra.

"You have to work on what's in your control and throw out what's not in your control. Once you understand your limitations, everything else is fun and hockey becomes a very simple game."

He had a plan, though. He had the squad play a match in the evening. "I made a video and marked the clipping of how they were making the same passes they had practiced. Either they were passing too hard which was difficult to stop, or passing very slow, which made it easy to intercept. Sometimes they would pass with their head down. That was a signal to the opposition to come in for an interception. If your head is up when you pass, you know where your teammate is and where the opponent is. If I know how far I have to pass, I will know at what speed I have to push. Then they understood, this is what we need to do if we need to pass," explains Harendra.

His goal he says was to simply ingrain the basics in his team. "The biggest problem with Indian hockey is the basics. We have a lot of skill. But if we don't know how to stop or pass the ball we don't get a chance to display that skill. The ball is always with the opposition," he says.

Getting the basics right is fundamental to Harendra's world view. "You have to work on what's in your control and throw out what's not in your control. A player needs to stop worrying about the referee, the pitch, the hotel, the hotel ka khana (Hotel food), the ball, the audience, the opponent, the timing of the match. These are not in a player's hands. There are very few things I can control, and it is very easy to control them. Once you understand your limitations, everything else is fun and hockey becomes a very simple game. Helping my teammates on the pitch, playing as per the plan, saving the goal, creating goal chances, these are in your control," he says.

The basics though were only the starting point to India's success. Over the course of two and a half years, the team perfected a playing structure that would be crucial to its success at Lucknow. "We were using diagonal passing in Lucknow. If a player can't go in one direction, he immediately transfers the ball and the attack moves in a separate direction. The transfer of the ball across flanks is quite a high skill, but at the same time, the opponents cannot react and cover so much ground. That leaves big holes in their field," he says.

The move was unprecedented. "Yeh hockey India kabhi khelti nahi thi (India had never played hockey like this). Traditionally, if India started from one flank, we would finish the move on the same flank. We were only using the length of the field. So it was easy to defend against us. The moment India started using the breadth of the field, the opposition had a problem. Because there is a lot more open space, there are more chances for one-on-one play. And when that happens, Indians are superior because we are far more skillful. Indians didn't need to learn how to dribble, but they did need to learn diagonal passes," says Harendra.

At the Junior World Cup, Harendra says India's tactics forced other teams to rethink theirs. "They came with a 'plan A' which wasn't going to work because we were playing with a different style of hockey. So they resort to 'plan B', which means they were reacting to our action. They were always on the back foot,"he says.

The courage of conviction

While the benefit of hindsight makes it seem the team's planning would always be a success at Lucknow, Harendra knows it wasn't always a certainty. He considers the December 2014 Sultan of Johor tournament in Malaysia - held six months after he took charge -- as critical to validating his beliefs. "If we hadn't done well there, it might have been harder to convince the team of my methods. I couldn't have said it doesn't matter we lost, we actually played quite well."

"The victory gave the players the belief that they were on the right track. They thought 'We need to listen to this coach even if he yells at us.' The boys tasted victory early and they realized this is how they had to play. That tournament brought the confidence and chemistry to the players and to me," he says of the tournament - which India won.

"One of the main reasons for the team's success was that we had time to prepare. If the boys didn't understand today, I knew I had another day to make them understand."

In fact Harendra says he needed his players to believe they were thinking on the same pattern as him. "In one session I would ask them to list out their individual strengths and weaknesses on a white board. After that I would pull out a slide show where I would use video clips to list out what my perception was. Then we would check how many similarities there were between what the two of us had written. If there were many, I could sit and talk to them because they understood that we were on the same page. That made it easy to transform and change,"he says.

Even if they were differences, Harendra wouldn't mind. The fact that he had two and a half years - a luxury in the fickle world of Indian coaching - was key. "In foreign countries most coaches' contracts run on an Olympics-to-Olympics cycle. That gives the coach time to prepare a training program. It also gives the players time to adapt to the training methodology. One of the main reasons for the team's success was that we had time to prepare. If the boy didn't understand today, I knew I had another day to make them understand," says Harendra.

The time on his side helped him produce results and Harendra says he was confident in the months leading up to the Junior World Cup. Confident enough to make a public prediction in August when the senior men and women's team was heading for the Olympics. "In front of about 100 people at the Hockey India office I promised that the junior team would win a gold medal. The other coaches were surprised I was making such a bold prediction, but I had a lot of confidence in my team," he says.

The results eventually did justice to his belief.

'This side has a class of a team'

The 'structure' that Charlesworth referred to is what Harendra considers the hallmark of this particular Indian team that sets it apart from previous sides. He had worked with the team that won the 2001 junior world cup too. It's hard for him to pick a favourite but the current team has definite advantages. " The 2001 side had several good players. They had the class of individuals. But this side plays as a team. They have the class of a team," he says.

Harendra feels that this quality will help players from the current batch even if they no longer play together in the future. "Once you understood the concepts of the team, you can go in any group and in any camp and form the team. But if you don't understand the concepts of the team, you can't do that anywhere," he says.

The victory comes with a realisation for Harendra. He knows that while the players will move on to greater things with the senior team, this will be the last time these players will feature in a Junior World Cup team under him. The least he can do he says is keep the WhatsApp jokes flowing. "Till I'm alive, this WhatsApp group will run. We will always be Champions 2016."