Combative, assertive and a never say die attitude. Narinder Dhruv Batra’s rise to the very top world hockey comes as no surprise to those who have been closely associated with him over the last two decades. His career as a sports administrator has been one of extreme ruthlessness, Batra was never one to settle for second best and it was a matter of time before the top job in international hockey was his.
A few months back, Batra shared a photo on Facebook from his hockey playing days (he played the Nationals for Jammu and Kashmir.) He has always been fiercely proud of his career as an amateur, and now that journey has come full circle with Batra winning the FIH Presidential elections at a canter in Dubai, becoming the first Asian to lead the world body in its 92 year.
Batra’s rise in both Indian and World hockey has been dramatic. He was one of the first members of the then Indian Hockey Federation to challenge the autocratic rule of its President KPS Gill. Batra endeared himself to members of the media by publicly interrupting a Gill press conference in 2005 and announcing his intention to take on the super cop. It was an unheard of revolt in Indian sport and Batra ensured that he stayed in the limelight by criticising the failings of the IHF.
Indian hockey was at its lowest in that period with the team underperforming on the pitch. The Indian Hockey team hit rock bottom in 2006, finishing 11th at the World Cup in Germany and failing to win a medal at either the Commonwealth Games in Australia or the Asiad in Qatar. After each disappointing result, Batra would use the ‘sms’ to good effect, bombarding journalists with his rants against the Gill-led regime which were at times simply unprintable but made for excellent reading to those intimidated by Gill’s behaviour and personality.
India’s failure to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the subsequent suspension of the IHF by the Indian Olympic Association after a bribery scandal, finally gave Batra the opportunity he had been waiting for. Initially the Suresh Kalmadi led IOA set up an ad hoc committee comprising some of India’s former greats, but within a year Batra had managed to find a way in. Since then his hold over Indian hockey has grown stronger and stronger.
He battled his way through multiple court cases across the country foisted upon by Gill and the IHF to ultimately set up Hockey India. Batra’s chief ally in this crusade was the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and it was their backing which gave the fledgling body the incubation period it required as India hosted the 2010 World Cup in New Delhi. Those cases still continue with a court ruling allowing the IHF to be part of the IOA along with Hockey India. Not that it matters to Batra anymore, the FIH allegiance is all that matters with the world body’s recognition a must to field a team at its events.
Batra’s first role in Hockey India was that of its all powerful Secretary General. With that power though, emerged the other side of Batra. A man who would not brook any interference. Anyone who took him on would ultimately have to pay the price. It was Batra’s way or the highway, and soon the list grew. Coaches MK Kaushik and Jose Brasa were the first to feel Batra’s wrath and paid for with their jobs. Players who did not toe the line too found themselves out of the reckoning. The mounting criticism didn’t faze Batra. He had larger battles to fight.
The domestic structure of Indian hockey was a mess and gradually Batra got a calendar going again.The national team was a work in progress and the first priority was to earn a qualifying berth for the 2012 Olympics. The target was achieved in style at home but India had a miserable outing at London 2012, ending up with the wooden spoon. Contrary to expectations, Batra did not sack Coach Michael Nobbs but appointed the highly qualified Roelant Oltmans as High Performance Manager. Nobbs though would last barely a year longer.
It was in this period that Batra started to flex his muscles in the IOA. He was a key lieutenant of Lalit Bhanot during the doomed election process that ultimately saw the IOA suspended by the International Olympic Committee. Never one to back down from a fight, Batra publicly took on IOA Secretary General Randhir Singh despite being fully aware of Singh’s clout in the IOC. The message went out loud and clear, Batra was not a man to be messed with.
In 2013, Batra firmly put himself in contention for a larger role in world hockey by launching the lucrative Hockey India League. Not only did it bring in big money into Indian hockey, the standard improved as well. The intimidation factor which seemed to strike the national team when playing tougher opponents like Australia, Germany and Netherlands gradually disappeared with players rubbing shoulders with the best on a daily basis.
The results started to come soon. The 2014 World Cup was a disappointment but India won a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and then clinched qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics with gold at the Asian Games in Incheon. Hardly had the euphoria died down that Indian hockey was plunged into chaos again. Terry Walsh’s resignation as Chief Coach saw Batra attack him on questions of propriety which saw the Australian leave in acrimonious circumstances. The behaviour of the Pakistan team during the FIH Champions Trophy at the end of the year drew Batra’s ire with him famously declaring that India would not host Pakistan or allow any Pakistani player to play in India till there was an apology from the Pakistan Hockey Federation. None has been forthcoming till date. The maverick in Batra would soon find himself in the middle of controversy with the abrupt departure of Walsh’s replacement Paul van Ass last year. It was an ugly battle which played out on national television and saw Batra being termed a dictator by his old nemesis Gill, which was more than a touch ironical.
Batra also found himself in the trenches in a pitched battle against IOA President N Ramachandran. Both sides indulged in a war of words with both taking each other to court. The hatchet was finally buried last month in a move that was largely seen as a step to enhance Batra’s appeal ahead of the election.
Yet, despite the occasional outbursts and high handedness which has come to be associated with his personality, Batra’s reputation has increased by leaps and bounds. He has dragged Indian hockey back into the national consciousness with smart marketing and presence on both television as well as social media platforms. There has been a conscious effort to raise the profile of the players with the media allowed never before access in recent years. Batra is aware that the game needs stars to be able to fully exploit the emotional connect that Indian hockey has with the sports fan. It is this vision that has seen the coffers of Indian hockey grow from negligible numbers to a state where corporate level salaries are paid to professional staffers as well as coaches and talent spotters across the country. Batra cut his teeth as a sports administrator in the murky corridors of power within the DDCA, and took a leaf out of cricket’s success story while rebuilding his sport.
India today may not have regained its position of pre-eminence on the pitch but in the corridors of power within the FIH no one can afford to take India lightly. Under him, India has become the financial power center in world hockey and it is this might that Batra has spoken of exploiting during his campaign for the top job in the FIH. The only concern however is that with Batra’s departure to the FIH office in Lausanne, Indian hockey may suffer from a leadership crisis. There is no succession plan is place, neither does Hockey India have a ready replacement for the man who single-handedly revived Indian hockey and could in the coming years take the FIH to much bigger heights.