His humongous contribution to Indian hockey is widely acknowledged and revered across the country. That’s the kind of aura the Dronacharya awardee coach Baldev Singh has built over many decades of unstinted hard work and dogged determination. The 69-year-old hockey coach has shaped up international careers of more than 80-odd players – the most prominent being Olympians – former drag-flicker and current Haryana Sports Minister Sandeep Singh, Indian women’s hockey team captain Rani Rampal, Didar Singh, Sanjeev Kumar Dang, Harpal Singh and Navjot Kaur.
Baldev’s illustrious list includes as many as five Arjuna Awardees - Rani Rampal, Jasjeet Kaur Handa, Surinder Kaur, Ritu Rani and Sandeep Singh – in fact, around eight of his students went on to captain the national side. “I’m really satisfied to see that I was able to train players, who went on to serve the country with distinction. I don’t wish to take all the credit for their success, as they have pulled in the hard yards to reach where they are now. It’s a happy feeling to realise the fact that I have managed to contribute to Indian hockey,” says the soft-spoken coach, who is currently serving as the Head Coach of Amritsar-based Khalsa Hockey Academy (KHA) under the aegis of the Khalsa College Charitable Society (KCCS). He has been serving in his current role since mid-2017.
Age is, of course, catching up with Baldev and health issues are indeed a concern. He had suffered a heart attack two years back. “I have put in more than forty years of hockey coaching and at 69, it is not easy to operate as I used to 10 - 15 years ago. I’m grappling with health issues - maybe I can now offer three hours of quality hockey coaching unlike earlier years when I used to operate the whole day,” says Baldev, who was the head coach of the Shahabad Hockey Academy in Haryana for a for 23 years (1992-2015). It was during this period, he mentored and honed the skills of Rani Rampal, Surinder Kaur, Ritu Rani among others. The celebrated hockey coach was associated with the Namdhari Hockey team for close to a decade after kickstarting coaching aspirations in 1982 after completing his coaching diploma in NIS, Patiala in 1979-80.
The animated conversation veers towards hockey coaching standards in the country, and Baldev pulled no punches in what he had to say:
“I’m deeply frustrated at how coaching standards have dwindled in India over the years. There is a dearth of quality hockey coaches in India. Look at Punjab – the state has so many hockey academies but good coaches are few and far between. There is also a lack of sincerity among the current coaches and player indiscipline is another major issue. The practice of roping in foreign coaches in India had discouraged the coming up good desi coaches and it is time Hockey India seriously looks at developing good coaches at the grassroots level or else our hockey will suffer,” quips Baldev, who candidly backed former national coach Harendra Singh as the best bet for women’s hockey.
“I’m not sure why he was given charge of the senior men’s hockey team. Harendra was doing well with the senior women’s team and even the girls look up to him and operate under him. He is intelligent, gets along well with his players and understands modern hockey better than anybody else. I believe he should be tasked with coaching the senior women’s team and also given a free hand. With Harendra around, our women’s hockey will be among the top teams of the world,” Baldev makes his point.
Baldev, who was conferred with the Dronacharya Award in 2009, gets excited talking about Rani Rampal – the current national women’s team captain. “Rani is cool as a cucumber and is very disciplined. She has no bad habits and takes her hockey seriously and is in love with it. It was a joy training her,” says Baldev who had retired from the Sports Department of the Haryana government.
The men’s hockey team may have qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but Baldev has reservations over the team’s prospects in the big-ticket event. “There is so much talk about our men’s team being world number 5, but we are not even winning the Asian Games. Beating top teams in big tournaments is all that matters and this is an area where Indian hockey must focus on,” says Baldev, who has been associated with the national team in various capacities over the years.