The sacking of Paul van Ass as the national team coach barely five months after he was hired by the Sports Authority of India on the recommendation of Hockey India has only one positive outcome—it exposed the HI and its president Narinder Batra.
It all started in the first week of July in Antwerp. During a Hockey World League match against Malaysia, Batra ventured into the pitch-side and gave the players a mouthful. It was a horrible match, but one India eventually won. And, it did not end there. Batra pulled up the players again for the poor show. An unhappy van Ass had to remind him that it was the coach's job to do so. A few days later, the coach got the sack. Batra denied any involvement, but called van Ass a “poor coach”.
Not many people, however, think so. “He is a very good coach,” said Joaquim Carvalho, Olympian and former coach. “If he wasn't, the HI would not have given the brief to get a silver medal at Rio Olympics. If Batra wanted to talk to the team, there was a time and place to do it. He has no idea what a player goes through mentally and physically while playing a match.”
What van Ass had in mind was a long-term project. However, a coterie of former players who had never been in favour of a foreign coach raised a hue and cry over his experiments in the HWL. The team reached the semifinals in the HWL and lost to hosts Belgium. The HI announced a review of the team's performance and the review committee decided to put a stamp of approval on what was already decided—kick van Ass out. THE WEEK is in possession of a series of emails exchanged between van Ass and fellow Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, who is the high performance director of the Indian team, which reveals that the coach was told not to return.
Van Ass was the fourth coach to leave in five years of Batra's rule. Batra, who led the revolt against K.P.S. Gill, president of the Indian Hockey Federation, came on the mandate of a professional and democratic administration. But he has been as authoritarian as Gill in his methods. “Batra wants to be the beginning of everything,” said former coach Jose Brasa, who was sacked by Batra.
Terry Walsh, who coached India to win gold at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, wanted more power to do things his way. What he got was insults and a volley of abuses from the HI during an interaction with a committee set up by the sports ministry. Batra is said to have told the ministry that it could continue with Walsh if it wanted so, but the team would not use his services.
The sports ministry is lying low for many reasons. Hockey gets the highest financial support from the government after shooting. The foreign coach's services are paid by the government. However, with barely a year to go to Rio, the ministry is not keen to get into a fight. Secondly, Oltmans's presence has ensured continuity. The Dutchman is now in charge of the team.
Batra is never shy of flaunting his proximity to an influential Union minister. It is said that the minister is aware of Batra's impetuous nature and his tiffs with other sports officials, but has not done much to rein in him. “Batra is running the federation like his fiefdom,” said Carvalho.
Batra was technically on sound ground when he insisted that van Ass had failed to return to India to take charge of the training camp after Belgium. But the nine-member committee he set up to decide the coach's fate—which included former Olympians Harbinder Singh and V. Bhaskaran—was said to be a charade to give the impression that he did not take decisions unilaterally. After the committee's decision, assistant coach Jude Felix also put in his papers citing personal reasons.
The HI will have to sort out bigger issues soon, as the rival body Indian Hockey Federation's case of unfair derecognition against the International Hockey Federation (FIH) is in a decisive stage in the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Lausanne, Switzerland. The order was to be passed in June but was deferred to July 24 and then to the third week of August. The IHF has already got a favourable verdict in the Indian courts and the sports ministry was ordered to give it due recognition.