Salima Tete’s elevation as India women’s hockey skipper has coach Harendra Singh’s imprint

Source ( Hockey India X)

Winds of change are blowing across Indian women’s hockey with Hockey India appointing Salime Tete as captain for the FIH Pro League, to be held in Europe. The 24-member squad announced on Thursday has three changes, but the main one was bringing in a new skipper. Goalkeeper Savita Punia is still in the super-size squad, and to be relieved of the captaincy is not something she needs to be ashamed of.

For the best part of her career, Savita has been a fantastic goalkeeper with a proven track record. She took over from Rani Rampal after the Tokyo Olympics, where India finished fourth three years ago. Memories from Tokyo are fresh in the memory for the die-hard fans but the disappointment of not making the cut for the Paris Olympics 2024, after losing the FIH qualifiers in Rourkela, still rankles. In January, the Indian women’s hockey team came a cropper against Japan.

What followed was dirty linen being washed in public. Coach JannekeSchopman had to leave after she put in her papers. After all, her interview criticising India was in bad taste. For Hockey India and the Sports Authority of India, letting Schopman go was easy as she had failed to deliver. If her inability to guide the team to a gold medal at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, last year was an aberration, the Olympic qualifiers were a disaster. There was talk of her being “taunted” by certain Hockey India officials but there is no denying that she failed, again, when the team did not do well in the Olympic qualifier. 

Harendra Singh

After missing out on the Paris berth, corrective measures had to be taken. There was more turmoil within Hockey India, onceElena Norman, the CEO, resigned after a 13-year stint. It is easy to say that she had no role to play in the performance, but she had been proactive for a long period.

Given the friction within Hockey India, later clarified, there was an uneasy calm. RevSportz has learnt that, sensing this, the Sports Authority of India decided to play a much more proactive role in finding the next coach for the Indian team. After all, Schopman was not in the same league as SjoerdMarijne, who quit after the emotional highs of Tokyo.

“I am happy that I have been appointed to lead the team,” said Salima of her appointment. “It is a big responsibility and I am looking forward to this new role. We have a strong squad and it’s a mix of experienced and young players.” Anyone who has watched Salima play will vouch that she is all feel, flair and fluency. She was the baby of the team in Tokyo but has grown from strength to strength by dint of sheer hard work. It has been evident in the last few tournaments that India played.

The flash point, a good one that, was Harendra Singh again being appointed as the women’s hockey coach. For reasons not apparently clear, the Hockey India press release did not mention his name while announcing the team. RevSportz has learnt that Harendra, Harry to friends, does not want to interact with the media. This silence may continue till June.

There is a big difference between the vocal Harendra of the past, before he left for a coaching assignment to the United States of America, and now. He has been hired again by SAI and Hockey India. The salary he has been brought on board at matches that which foreign coaches who come to India get. Harendra had fought for more money after the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, where the Indian men’s team did badly. He was then given the chance to guide the junior team, but he refused. At that time, the coach had said he would not settle for peanuts.

It is no secret that Harendra has spent time with the women’s team at the SAI campus in Kengeri, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, recently. He was there for more than two weeks and realised that a shake-up was needed. It may have been a well-kept secret, but there was infighting in the women’s team. Nothing was written about it, though.

Harendra and the think-tank of Hockey India, including the selection committee, racked their brains and came up with the idea of grooming Salima as captain. Harendra was not available for comment. The way ahead for the women’s team is to rebuild through the Pro League, while gearing up for the 2026 Asian Games in Japan.

Savita is 33. She still has sharp reflexes and there are still not too many goalkeepers who can match her agility and reflexes. As for Salima, she is just 22. Leadership has been bestowed upon her by design, and not by default. 

There are still many supporters and well-wishers for Indian women’s hockey. Maybe, with Harendraas coach and Salima as skipper, better days lie ahead.

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