Indian hockey needs a coach like Imran Khan. The benevolent former cricket dictator of Pakistan would not allow any cricket administrator in his country to monkey around him or his players as long as he was captain. He would ask even the Pakistan Cricket Board secretary to leave the hallowed dressing room.
Unlimited power is bound to corrupt those who think that might is right. If Imran had acquired unbridled power by the sheer weight of his cricketing exploits, now we have Hockey India (HI) president Narendra Batra using his proximity to the political establishment to gain a firm grip over the organisation.
Few officials in Indian sport have been able to gain the kind of clout Batra has in such a short time and he is so ambitious he is now gunning to capture the Indian Olympic Association (IOA).
He seems to have the wherewithal and backing from the right political quarters to ride roughshod over anyone coming his way. As is happening in the other spheres of national affairs, Batra seems unconcerned about the repercussions.
How else can one explain his eccentric ways of functioning, for instance the sacking of two national hockey coaches within a year? Is this the way a team which has qualified for the Rio Olympics first is being prepared for the Games? The team had two full years to be counted at the 2016 Olympics.
The first setback came when the man who piloted the team to qualify, Australian Terry Walsh, was shown the door without even being given an opportunity to officially explain an alleged shady business deal with the US Hockey Federation, with which HI has nothing to do.
Now the HI boss has forced Walsh’s successor Paul van Ass, whose credentials are as praiseworthy as his predecessor’s, having won the London Olympics silver with his native Dutch team.
There appears a method in sacking hockey coaches, particularly the ones from overseas. Spaniard Jose Brasa and Australian Michael Nobbs, leave alone Rick Charlesworth, said so much on the unprofessional functioning of the hockey authorities in the country.
Of course, Batra is unwilling to accept the responsibility for the Paul van Ass’s exit yet, but all indications are that it was he who precipitated matters with his cavalier actions. Or, will the sacking of coaches an excuse for the team’s possible below-par performance at Rio.
Van Ass has explicated his position without mincing words. He says he has been sacked a week ago, whatever Batra might say in his defence.
The Dutch coach has rubbed it in by saying that he is yet to hear about his sacking officially from HI or the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and that he has not been asked to join the camp at Shilaru, a high altitude centre in Himachal Pradesh.
Batra’s explanation that Van Ass has either returned home with the team from Antwerp after the Hockey World League semi-finals or submitted his report on India’s performance is at best flimsy. Yet, he says, he has not been sacked or denied travel documents when Van Ass openly says he has not been provided with the passage.
Van Ass insists that HI High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans has conveyed to him his sacking, but Batra takes refuge under technicalities of the conversation between them as not being official.
There has to be some valid and logically strong reasons for sacking two accomplished coaches. Curiously, whenever a coach is sacked Oltmans is stepping in to save the situation for HI.
If Batra thinks Van Ass’ behaviour is unprofessional how proficient is his own act of barging on to the field to talk to the players at Antwerp soon after a game. The field of play is sacrosanct and no unauthorised person should be walking on the secured turf. Van Ass, politely or not, rightly asked his autocratic boss to leave the field.
Worse, he is believed to have harangued in Hindi asking players to pull up their socks. He should have known that was not the place or time for him to speak to the players.
Whether he has taken permission from the organisers or the national coach is immaterial, he is no one to go and give a pep talk to the players on the field of play.
As Van Ass cryptically pointed out, HI has every right to sack him but not by apportioning unfair blame on him. Maybe, Batra thinks he can order a coach with the help of the international federation whenever he wants one.
What of the players? They are livid and unhappy with the turn of events. They have a point when they say they cannot be expected to change their style of play and strategy every time a new coach comes in.
To be fair to him, Batra has put India on the marketing map of world hockey and brought so much of international competition for the Indian team at home. But, that should not give him the licence to behave irrationally and in an autocratic way.
There is no need for the hogwash of a captive committee of former Olympians to decide on the future course of action. Maybe, Batra may now prefer a pliable Indian coach to take the team to Rio instead of a self-respecting foreign coach who would not like to be told how to train a team.
Can a toothless sports ministry intervene to save Indian hockey? It doesn’t appear as, after the way it succumbed to Batra’s bullying in the case of Walsh.
HI can as well have its status line used as title of his autobiography by former Olympian Aslam Sher Khan: To hell with hockey!
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)