Strange things are not uncommon in Indian hockey. Still, what happened recently exceeds everything we are used to. Employee says he has been sacked, while employer refutes it! In a quicksilver atmosphere where each passing hour witnesses ‘breaking news’, it’s difficult to say who lies, the Hockey India represented by its controversial head Narender Batra, or its employee Paul van Ass, who till last year was the national chief coach of The Netherlands. The latest trigger centres around an altercation between Van Ass and the temperamental Batra after, ironically, India won the quarterfinals against Malaysia at the Hockey World League Round 3 called Semifinals, at Antwerp, Belgium. Batra wanted the team to do better, and the coach felt it was wrongly timed as ‘he controls boys on the ground’. India’s chief coach told Batra ‘either you leave or I leave’. Batra left the scene.
It would have been a small matter had it ended there. As is usual in Indian sports, treatment caused more damage than the disease. Van Ass didn’t turn up for the camp that started a fortnight later or submit the mandatory tournament report. Batra fumed and appeared logical till Van Ass broke his silence and claimed he had already been ‘fired’.
No one knows even now whether Van Ass has been actually ‘fired’ or not. He was appointed by Sports Authority of India (SAI) on the recommendation of HI. Only SAI is authorised to terminate his three-year contract. SAI has not done that. It later came to light that Roelant Oltmans, High Performance Director with HI, informed Van Ass of something like that. Van Ass could have picked up his phone and clarified with either SAI or HI but he didn’t. He started speaking through the media and his subsequent actions established he is not interested in the job any more, though at one point, after thoroughly muddying the waters, he said he wanted to come back.
Van Ass first claimed he didn’t get the return ticket, though it was proved it was sent to him a month ago. He later accepted he didn’t properly check his inbox. In the subsequent war of words, he even exceeded Batra in egoistic expressions. “I travelled in Indica in India while Bentley is waiting at my garage”. Batra, for his part, claimed he wasn’t a ‘good coach’ but only a ‘manager’. Being a shrewd administrator, Batra constituted a nine-member Special Committee. The committee, headed by a triple Olympian, expectedly decided to sack Van Ass on grounds of indiscipline. The internal panels of national federations in India have no credibility. They are ‘His Masters’ Voice’ kind. So Batra’s will prevailed. Van Ass is the fourth foreign coach in five years to be sacked. Each one had a sordid story to tell of his own. India is a great challenge for every established foreign coach. They feel India doesn’t perform befitting its talent, mass support and a wealthy national association. This is the feeling among many Indians as well. Analysts feel India, currently eighth in world rankings, underperforms though it has potential to reemerge as a world power.
The question of appointing foreign coaches gained momentum after India failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. The government loosened its purse. Most top coaches showed interest. First to come was the legendary Ric Charlesworthy, but the then boss KPS Gill apparently ill-treated him. He went back in six months. Then came Spaniard Jose Brasa. His contract wasn’t renewed after a year. Michael Nobbs survived two years, but India expected quick results and he too had to go. His countryman Terry Walsh transformed Indian hockey in the quickest possible time. India won the elusive Asian Games gold. But within a month, Batra saw him off on flimsy grounds. Van Ass didn’t even survive six months.
What’s wrong with foreign coaches? Why do we get them if we can’t handle them? Are Indian administrators always at fault or the coaches too are party to their own undoing? What’s the road forward, especially since the Olympics is just a year away? In answers to these questions lie the future of Indian hockey.
There’s no second opinion that Indian hockey needs foreign expertise. Indian coaches, by and large, live in the stone era. Hockey has become a straight simple science of fitness. Everything else is secondary. Australian hockey follows the Australian Rules Football style. Players mostly weigh 80-90 kg, but are highly agile, quick, dynamic and tactful. India’s task is to attain that level of fitness, and then work on strategies through exposure, experience and experimentation. This is costly and requires patience. But the Indian media, public and administrators want quick results. They are weighed down by the burden of history. Administrators are market-driven and want to see India win every tournament.
India needs good results to survive and sustain the hugely popular Hockey India League. Batra wants a series of sponsors to realise his ambition. He made his brainchild HI the most affluent national federation in the world. HIL is one of its kind in hockey, a cash cow for hundreds of foreign stars. He is in a hurry to move forward and needs consistently good results from the national team.
However, team rebuilding has its own pace. Foreign coaches concentrate on marquee tournaments at the cost of other events like Test series, invitational tournaments like Azlan Shah Cup etc. They are ready for bad results being part of experiments. That’s how all amateur sports function globally. But India, being the market leader, doesn’t permit what in science is called Normal Temperature and Pressure for any experiment to succeed. Foreign coaches face cultural differences in the new environment. Multiplicity of agencies, mass media, a demanding federation, skewed selection process, denial of autonomy to plan are some of the issues they confront. Foreign coaches are paid handsomely. Comforts provided to them are also manifold. They revel in their new-found heroism in being in the limelight. But these charms dissipate against the mountain of expectations.
Batra has transformed Indian hockey into a global hub of competition and finances. `6 crore was the annual total turnout of the previous regime. Now, it’s touching `100 crore. HIL has made over 100 players millionaires overnight. National championships in all categories were held regularly in the last five years, which is a record. But hockey needs Olympic success to get a foothold in the collective consciousness of India. Results can’t come overnight. It will happen if Batra gives time to coaches and maintains a line between administration and technical things. His impatience may undo all the good work he has done so far.