Pranita Kulkarni

Mir Ranjan Negi: The Miracle Coach

Pranita Kulkarni

Mir Ranjan Negi

It’s the final match of an international women’s field hockey tournament. The last penalty shot to be hit by the rival player is going to decide the fate of the Indian women’s hockey team. The goalkeeper looks at the coach, understands the signal and goes with the coach’s instinct. She successfully stops the ball and leads the Indian audience seated at the stands into a frenzy of exuberance and glory. Patriotic music plays in the background, implying victory of the Indian team. The coach is hardly able to comprehend the situation. He looks around with his eyes going moist. He bends to reach his knees, as if his shoulders unburden the failure from his past. He looks at the tricolour hoisted and is overwhelmed with the feeling of ultimate peace filling in.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Although the description seems like that of the penultimate sequence of the 2007 Bollywood movie “Chak De India”, it has also emerged from someone’s own reality. The real face behind the character of Kabir Khan from that movie is of the Indian field hockey coach Mir Ranjan Negi. His comeback along with the chief coach M K Kaushik led Indian men’s hockey team to the gold medal in the 1998 Asian Games, Bangkok. Later, he went on to help women’s team win a gold medal in Commonwealth Games, 2002. The movie picks its inputs from both these tournaments and tries to give justice to the portrayal of Negi’s character; who, in reality, was a passionate hockey coach struggling to revive his reputation – damaged by his last game in 1982.

The 1982 Blunder in Asian Games

Negi was a goalkeeper in the Indian men’s field hockey team, which had made it to the finals in the 1982 Asian Games, hosted by India in New Delhi. The match was played with the finalist country Pakistan, and India had suffered a catastrophic defeat with a score of 7-1. The 1982 Asiad was a huge affair for the country, as it was for the first time that the Asian Games were beaming live pictures into millions of homes in the country. Since the match was against Pakistan, it was not just a game anymore, feels Negi. It had become an issue of national pride.

negi 1982

After the loss in the finals, Negi had become the target of flak and was even being accused of conceding the goals intentionally. He narrates, “My world turned upside down. I was branded a traitor, and was held guilty for a crime which I had not committed. The immense pressure we were subjected to, the unexpected changes in the final team, an unhealthy state of mind and certain foul moves by the opponent team were equally responsible for the unimaginable loss, that day.” He claims that all of these factors were conveniently overlooked by the media, and Negi was made the scapegoat for the blunder.
There were several allegations that plagued the aftermath of the match and made life a misery, especially, for Negi. False reports of CBI inquiry being set up against him were circulated in the media. An English weekly had published a report wherein it was alleged that the then UP Chief Minister H Bahuguna used Negi to seek revenge against the then PM late Indira Gandhi and made the  goalkeeper play an open door policy. This report was based on the fact that both of them hail from Garhwal. It was also claimed that he was paid Rs one lakh for the each goal he failed to save.
 “This was a never-ending nightmare and wherever I went, I was abused. Sometimes, I had to even run for my life. Patriotism is deeply ingrained in me and I could never think of betraying my beloved country. All I wanted at that time was to be left alone. I was so miserable that I even contemplated suicide. I would break down and cry all the time. It took me 16 long years to get over the catastrophe and return to the mainstream professional hockey,” says Negi.
The most impressive part of his journey from defeat to his comeback is that he never parted ways with the sport which had brought him ignominy and misery. In fact, he claims, “There wasn’t even a single day between 1982 and 1998, when I didn’t go to the field. I kept playing nationals and was the first choice for the goalkeeper of the Mumbai Hockey Team. But at some point, I realised that the doors of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) were closed for me. So, I decided to retire from the international professional hockey.”

New Inning in the Hockey

After his retirement from the game, Negi resorted to coaching junior hockey players at the school and the university levels along with some of his senior colleagues, in Mumbai. He had been employed at the customs department, but managed to dedicate his time to the sport as well. While coaching the young hockey players, Negi’s association organised one-month-long camp and invited internationally acclaimed field hockey coaches to guide the participants. Negi remembers, “That was the time when I really got into coaching. My friend K Jyothikumaran, who used to play for the combined universities hockey team, had gone on to become the secretary general of IHF. It was he who decided to hand me the reigns of the Indian men’s hockey team, which was preparing for the 1998 Asian Games, Bangkok. It was a big opportunity for me, and I had made up my mind that I would not settle for anything less than a gold medal.” Negi was working along with the chief coach M K Kaushik, with whom, he shared a good chemistry. “We had played together. He was in Mumbai, and we were on really good terms. As we started coaching together, we became inseparable. All the decisions were taken by us in consensus and none of my suggestions were ever overlooked by him,” he says.
Although, it was really tough, Indian men’s hockey team had not procured a single gold medal in the Asian Games for 32 years since 1966. Women’s hockey team had never won the gold medal in Commonwealth Games either. Both the teams had to go through a thorough transformation to even come close to standing a chance of winning at these prestigious tournaments, but coach Negi managed to achieve it.

Mir Ranjan Negi_Coaching

From Forming to Performing

When Negi took up coaching for the Indian men’s hockey team in 1998, he was very much aware of the hardships that were to follow. After all, a sportsman is believed to understand the phrase ‘no gain without the pain’ the best. At the same time, he believed in setting easy and accessible targets, so as to not intimidate the players.
“When I started training the boys along with the chief coach, we felt that we needed more senior hockey players in the team. It was recommended to the federation, and they took the suggestion,” he recollects. Many players like Ashish Ballal, A B Subbaiah and Anil Aldrin were later added to the team. Ballal went on to become the national hero in 1998, after he saved two tie-breaker goals in the final match.
They also decided to involve these senior players in the team management in order to have voices from within the team while making important decisions. They were part of the strategising process and their say was always taken into consideration by the coach. Seniors also helped in controlling the energy and the aggression of the team members.
Negi admits that it was difficult to get all the players to gel well together so as to form a winning combination. “All of them came from different backgrounds and represented different cultures. An Indian coach has to understand the psyche of the each and every player. We have to identify their strengths and the weaknesses to come up with a way to utilise them in the best possible way,” says Negi. He adds that he thinks of the players as different types of spices, who have to be used in a specific proportion to make a wonderful-tasting dish.
The key strengths of the team, according to him, were their unity and dedication. “As I took charge of the team, I found out that the team was extremely dedicated and hardworking. Nothing else mattered to them more than victory. Many of them had come out from almost their retirement to play in the Asiad, and it was their last chance to win. As a result, they were giving their 100%, always,” he says.
When Negi joined the team as a coach, his key focus area was – goalkeeping. He remembers, “It used to be a neglected part of the game and I had to bring in some changes. I started conducting a third session after the practice, only for the goalkeepers Ballal and Subbiah. I would shoot videos of that session, so that they can look at the mistakes they’re making. It was a very innovative technique for that time, as no coach had ever done this, before.” Negi also used the ball machines to prepare the players, so that they could practice with each and every possible angle.
Later, when he started coaching the women’s team in 2002, he noticed that this team had a very unique strength. Negi remembers, “The girls were more sincere and extremely faithful. They respected their coach like their father and did their work diligently.”
However, some of the girls, who had come from the less developed states like Bihar and Jharkhand, would go the entire session without uttering a word. Negi had to work to build their confidence and boost their morale. “These girls were not vocal. They avoided eye-contact and kept their heads bowed. But, I believed that everyone in the world has a fighting spirit and it can be, indeed, cultivated through sports,” he says. He used his warm demeanour to communicate with them, and they were taught fighting through the rigorous physical and mental training exercises.
One of the goalkeepers in the women’s team – Dipika Moorti was a bit shorter than the height considered ideal for the goalkeepers. However, Negi worked on her skill to stop the ball with her hockey stick. “If she’s standing in the left corner, and the ball is coming towards the right, it’s not physically possible for her to reach in time and save the goal. So, she would stop the ball extending her hockey stick,” informs Negi.
Dealing with the Friction
Although the players were united and believed in the same dream, they did experience some friction among themselves and with the federation, sometimes. Negi knew how to communicate and deal with each of these players effectively. “You have to scold a Punjabi player. He won’t listen to you, otherwise. Later you have to pep him up a bit. But, the same formula would never work for a mumbaikar player. If you shout at him he’ll make things worse for you,” he jests.
Helen Mary, a senior hockey player from the women’s hockey team was the goalkeeper for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. As the coach started training them, he insisted on changing her strategies and the way she played entirely. She had played as the goalkeeper in the team for at least five years before the tournament and was a well-known and a very talented player. “But, I had to change her style. I changed the way she stood, dived and saved the goal. She used to fall every time she tried to stop the ball. One could have easily identified her tendency and would have shot the ball in the upward direction. We had to work on that, but she cooperated and managed to give a brilliant performance,” he remembers.
Negi had to tactically deal with the players who would lose their temper over petty issues sometimes. He remembers that he had to appeal to the nationalist in the player Dhanraj Pillay to stop him from leaving the camp. According to him, the player was enraged as he was not served a cup of tea. Negi narrates, “I asked Dhan – Tomorrow, history will ask you that why you left the Indian national hockey camp? What answer will you have then? Will you be able to tell them that you did it over a cup of tea? He understood, came back, and played very well. As a coach, it’s your responsibility to make them look at the larger picture, if they cannot.”
A similar incident had taken place when Negi was coaching women’s hockey team in 2002. The hostel where women players were staying had a disrupted water supply and the lack of proper facilities for the national team had angered the players. When Negi suggested to them to stay for the practice a bit longer, one of the women players had an outburst. She refused to stay and replied to him ‘in a very bad manner’.
Negi, who was known for his warm and friendly approach towards the players stopped greeting them or talking to them. “I had to literally blackmail her emotionally. But, she was a good human being. She was in tears after six days, and apologised to me. I apologised to her for failing to ensure a proper facility for their stay, to which she replied that nothing is more important than the game,” he reminisces.

Chak De India_Commonwealth Gold 2002

The Rulebook
Although Negi was perceived as a warm and inclusive coach, he also had to make sure that certain discipline was maintained in the team. He put forth certain rules which had to be followed by all the players. “The first rule that I put forward was ‘No Ridicule Policy’. Making fun of other players was never tolerated in my team. Like I said, I had to work on building many players’ confidence. I could not afford to let it get hampered by others,” says Negi.
He also made sure that everything was about the performance of the team and not individuals. Whatever may be the hurdle, the players had to adjust and keep playing. When the men’s hockey team had reached Bangkok for the tournament, they had not received their kits, informs Negi. But the players did not care about that, and kept their focus on practising.
One of the most important measures taken by Negi was that he did not allow anyone to pressurise the players. Having suffered himself, he did not let the players be stressed out. “I’d rather tell them that even if you play at 60% of your capacity, you can defeat them. If someone tried to lecture them dramatically on how it’s a matter of life and death for the country, I’d shoo them away. The players have to be in a right frame of mind for a good game. Their intensity has to be balanced. Some amount of nervousness is good for them as it gives them the required energy.”
Outcome and Result
Negi’s efforts as a coach in bringing the team together and disciplining the players got returns in the form of two gold medals in both the years that he coached.
In 1998, India won the hockey gold medal in the Asian Games for the second time after beating South Korea 5-3 on penalties in the final. The star player, Dhanraj Pillai, who was threatening to leave the team camp, scored 11 goals in just six matches!
In 2002, Indian women played as a single unit – cashing in on their strengths and working around each others’ weaknesses. Throughout the tournament, they kept winning fiercely contested games against very strong teams. The last step to the gold was taken by goalkeeper Helen Mary, who earlier had minor differences with coach Negi and yet ended up putting her absolute faith in the coach. She dived in the direction Negi indicated to stop the penalty shot fired by the English striker. The shot was stopped. The final scorecard read 3-2 in favour of India.

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