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Indian hockey in perpetual state of instability

By Dattaraj Thaly | Last Updated: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 20:19

"For Hockey India and SAI, the coaches are just puppets who should move according to their wishes," said Jose Brasa in a scathing indictment of Hockey India (HI) president Narinder Batra after news first emerged that Paul van Ass was set to go as Indian men's team's chief coach.

Brasa of course knows how the hockey officials in India conduct their duties. The Spaniard, chief coach of India in 2010, had famously accused HI and SAI of unacceptable behavior during his tenure.

"I was promised a lot of things. They vowed to provide accommodation for my family and schooling for my kids. But they went back on their words. I called them, they didn't pick up the phone. I wrote to them, but never got a reply. They cheated me. Barring 30 days of leave in a year, I don't even have Saturdays and Sundays off! They have treated me like a slave," was his parting shot.

Brasa's support to Paul van Ass did not come as a surprise, for he knows exactly what it takes to function as a foreign coach in the Indian hockey system.

Drama surrounding the clash between Van Ass and Batra once again brought to the fore problems that have long plagued hockey and sports in general in India.

In order to train athletes to become world beaters, elite sports managers need a certain degree of autonomy, which continues to be absent in India for now.

The primary reason for the mess Indian hockey finds itself in at the moment is a result of a power struggle between the team coach and federation's president.

Van Ass claimed Batra entered the pitch after India's 3-2 win over Malaysia and addressed the players in a negative tone during the World Hockey League semi-final. This according to him was unacceptable as the pitch is the jurisdiction of a coach. Van Ass then asked Batra to leave the field immediately.

Batra however rebutted that argument stating he requested permission from the Dutchman to address the players after he was asked to do so by some officials.

Batra further claimed Van Ass then suddenly lost his cool in the middle of this address and gave him an ultimatum, saying "you leave or I leave".

Obviously the two versions of the incident are hard to verify and possibly fans would never get to know what actually transpired in Antwerp that day.

Allegations have been traded back and forth since the news of the spat first emerged between the two. But players and fans seem to have been caught in the crossfire with little over a year left for the Rio Olympics.

India's performance at the World Hockey League semi-final was satisfactory according to Van Ass, who also believes his boys were all set to enter a high performance phase.

Batra, clearly not happy, felt otherwise and ordered a report from the team officials.

The temperamental coach not only failed to submit his report, but also didn't turn up for the hockey camp in Shilaroo.

Van Ass is not faultless in the matter but Batra terming him a 'bad coach' reflects poorly on the president himself. Why in the first place would an experienced administrator appoint a 'bad coach' as the man in charge of Indian men's hockey, is something he needs to answer.

Many will remember a similar incident that occurred not long ago when Van Ass' predecessor Terry Walsh made an unceremonious exit citing inefficient sports bureaucracy as the reason.

The Australian, despite leading India to Rio Olympics qualification, was ousted by Batra on charges of financial irregularities during his time with Hockey USA in 2012.

With Van Ass gone, India has now had four coaches in the last five years.

Appointed in 2008, Ric Charlesworth did not last long as technical director of the team. Jose Brasa (2009-10) and Terry Walsh (2013-14) too had short stints as chief coaches of the national side. The trio, at different times during their tenure, was left frustrated with the system and the hockey hierarchy.

Michael Nobbs (2011-2013) was possibly the only chief coach who differed in his appraisal of the problems at the heart of Indian hockey. Nobbs claimed mentality and attitude of the players was the reason behind India's recent hockey failures. The Australian also suggested that, in Batra, HI is in the hands of the right man.

The latest issue surrounding veteran Gurbaj Singh and allegations of indiscipline leveled against him by the Harbinder Singh-led special hockey committee proves that Nobbs' observation is not off the mark.

Lack of stability seems to be the central theme in Indian hockey. Too much chopping and changing means players have to learn and unlearn different philosophies employed by every new coach that comes in. Such an environment breeds uncertainties and insecurities among players, leading to inadequate mental preparedness ahead of tournaments.

The current pool of players has been playing together for around four years. Yet the inconsistency in their performances is striking. The team is still a long way away from beating world class opponents like Australia, Netherlands and Germany. What is worrying is the fact that Sardar Singh's side is being challenged by Belgium, Malaysia and Great Britain, which clearly isn't encouraging for the team's medal prospects in Rio next year.

Despite being perceived as dictatorial and arrogant by his detractors, Batra's track record proves he clearly ranks among the best sports administrators in India.

In fact, former India captain Viren Rasquinha believes Batra is possibly the best hockey boss in the world.

Under Batra, facilities for players, junior levels included, have vastly improved. He has successfully diverted the attention of International Hockey Federation towards India, which has led to the country now being a preferred destination for hosting big tournaments.

Hockey India League has helped young Indian players to rub shoulders with the world's best. Camps at all levels have been conducted with thorough professionalism and players seem to be happy with what's on offer. Sponsors have come on-board, leading to more money coming into Indian hockey than any other nation.

Interference of administrators is not confined to Indian hockey. Every federation has its own Narinder Batra. The list is long and includes the likes of F1's Bernie Eccelstone, FIFA's Sepp Blatter and ICC's N Srinivasan, all of whom govern their organizations as their personal fiefdom.

Now that Roelant Oltmans will lead India into the all-important 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, it remains to be seen whether the latest bitter tussle between the administration and team staff has damaged the country's bid for another hockey medal.

First Published: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 20:14

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