BHUBANESWAR: Tucked quietly in the West Stand of the Kalinga Stadium, with no fancy tournament ribbon around his neck, a Sikh gentleman appeared no different than the many others from his hockey-loving turbaned community seated around him on Tuesday. Forty-one years ago, at the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay, now Mumbai, Rajinder Singh was doing what India couldn't do consistently in this Hockey World Cup. He scored 12 goals on penalty corners -- still a record for an Indian player in a World Cup.
Arms crossed, the 1980 Olympics gold medallist Rajinder was watching the Belgians putting it across India's tormentor in the crossovers, New Zealand. It took his mind back to 1982 when, incidentally, India had beaten New Zealand 3-2 in the classification crossovers before finishing fifth in the tournament. Here, the team has been relegated to fight in the 9th-16th place playoffs.
But even before India were ousted from the title race here, something had ticked off Rajinder -- an alleged snub by Hockey India, which shattered the Dronacharya award winner while he watched some of the former India stars getting VIP treatment.
"I am disappointed. I had to struggle to get tickets, while no one in the federation responded to my attempts to contact," the 65-year-old, who also championed India's 2001 Junior World Cup triumph as coach, alleged.
Rajinder also served as India coach after ending his playing career and is currently working with RoundGlass Sports in Chandigarh, having retired from Indian Railways. He was the coach at the 2003 Asia Cup, when the current Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey was part of India's back-line and the team won the title beating Pakistan 4-2 in the final.
Like the whole of India, Rajinder had a lot of hope from India captain and penalty-corner expert Harmanpreet Singh. He even thought Harmanpreet had a chance to break his record.
Back in the day, drag-flick was yet to be invented. The stopper used to enter the circle to stop the injection (push from the baseline), which reduced the distance between the ball and the goal post, which made the direct hit more potent. Rajinder was a master of the art.
"I had high hopes from Harman, to the extent that he would break my record. But it went so bad that the solitary goal he scored was when the opposition (Wales) had withdrawn their goalkeeper," said Rajinder talking to TimesofIndia.com.
Like many experts have said since India's defeat in the crossovers, Rajinder too is of the view that calling a penalty-corner expert just one month before the World Cup was a wrong call and it disturbed the rhythm of Harmanpreet, who also didn't have support like he used to have before Rupinder Pal Singh retired.
Former Netherlands drag-flicker Bram Lomans worked with India's PC experts for a week-long camp last December.
"Holding a penalty-corner camp with an expert just a month before the World Cup may have confused Harman and he was totally off in the World Cup," Rajinder said. "I didn't even see the team's variations being effective whenever they tried that on set-pieces. We should have seen more (different) variations."
He also disagreed with the notion that the team requires a mental trainer or psychologist to handle pressure situations. Rajinder said it is coach Graham Reid's duty to play that role as well.
"I think the coach is responsible (for this fiasco). I was reading somewhere that the players were under mental stress. If that is the case even after playing 200-250 matches, then I think the coach (has not played his role properly). He has no business remaining the team's coach anymore," said Rajinder without mincing his words.
He even advocated for an Indian coach to be brought back at the helm, or at least be groomed and educated to be the next in line.
To Hockey India's credit, the federation does conduct a 'Coaching Education Pathway' programme, but Rajinder argued that the trend of bringing foreign coaches is still in vogue.
Germany's Gerhard Rach was the first foreign hockey coach to hit the Indian shores. Since then, Jose Brasa, Ric Charlesworth (director), Michael Nobbs, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass, Roelant Oltmans, Sjoerd Marijne and the current coach Reid have become part of that list.
"Even while our Prime Minister has been promoting 'Make in India'. When will we apply that to hockey coaches?" asked Rajinder.
"This is the responsibility of Hockey India, to educate coaches, improve them, and identify the areas they lack in. The Indian coaching fraternity will totally vanish if we continue to bring foreign coaches and don't trust the coaches available in the country.
"An Indian coach will be ready to put his life on the line for the team if he or she is given the same treatment."
Indian hockey is entering a crucial phase, where the benefits of the supply chain from Hockey India League and the 2016 Junior World Cup triumph will be fully consumed by the Paris Olympics.
Just one player from the 2021 Junior World Cup, Vivek Sagar Prasad, is part of this World Cup squad. And Vivek had played for the senior team already before leading the junior team.
"A crucial phase is coming up for Indian hockey. This current batch will be together till the Asian Games or may be the 2024 Olympics...We should be building a team for the future," said Rajinder.
"Climbing higher in world rankings by playing in the Pro League, where many oppositions at times don't field their first-choice players, is a false premise (to document growth). According to my understanding, our team's performance is still not of the top-four level."
Rajinder is a master of creating champions. Be it Delhi's Union Academy school, the 2001 junior world champions or the 2003 Asia Cup winners, the twirl in his moustache becomes more upright hearing those mentions.
On Wednesday, he, along with some friends, set off for some sight-seeing.
"I am going to see the Konark Temple," he said.
"Hope to return in time for the last two quarterfinals. Let's see."