In sports parlance, it was like the Sonny Liston vs Muhammad Ali fight where no one gave a ghost of a chance to Ali. Narinder Batra may not be as smooth as Ali but he does have a killer punch – a mighty upper-cut that smashed through 92 years of white domination and ensured he became the first Indian, rather the first non-European to become president of the FIH (International Hockey Federation.) It may not exactly sound like winning an Olympic medal but it surely brings back administrative domination to the sub-continent. Fans in India would like to believe domination on the turf might also be around the corner.
While the Indian team was winning its matches at the Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan, Malaysia, Asian Hockey Federation members were huddled in hotels, all talking about the FIH elections. And the voice coming out was that ‘Batra didn’t have much of a chance to beat back the 'whites'.’’ Continental votes were counted and re-counted and yet the numbers showed Batra losing. ‘Even the Asian members won’t vote for him,” said an AHF member, saying in the same breath, “don’t quote me.” The common refrain was “he has rubbed people the wrong way.” But for the second time in a week, pollsters were proved wrong. Batra, also in a way, on a lesser scale, has done a Donald Trump.
Batra is not your suave, Brooks Brothers suited, smoothie. He is not only rough around the edges but is one hell of a ‘toughie’. “If you dare develop an opposing opinion that impacts his work or business, remember he won’t forget,” says an AHF member. “He will wait for the right time to strike back.”
In a way, Batra has struck for India and Asia as well; so what if it took 92 years. In fact, Indian captain P Sreejesh’s tweet says a lot about the power that Batra wields today: ‘The Hockey revolution started…congratulation Batra sir the new president.’
Whether it’s going to be a hockey revolution or not will be decided in the next four years of his tenure. But one thing is certain; Batra will push the boundaries in creating a product that would not only stretch the footprint but bring in the revenues too. In his first meeting with the media after being elected FIH President, Batra, said, “My focus will only be on the revenues.”
In the last four to five years, India has emerged as the financial centre for hockey, more like what Indian cricket has achieved. And that’s one reason why the voting pattern changed so much by the time the members of the FIH flew into Dubai. One wonders, why past presidents of the Indian Hockey Federation didn't really try and dominate the FIH. MAM Ramaswamy, under whose presidency India won the 1975 World Cup and the 80’ Moscow gold medal (the last Olympic gold for Indian hockey), probably was just too pre-occupied with his first love ‘racing’ and is said to have owned more than a thousand horses at one point. In 2012, Forbes listed Ramaswamy as the 88th richest person in India and estimated his net worth at $650 million.
Inder Mohan Mahajan, an IPS officer, came after him but he never had the marketing abilities and neither could he live down the 1-7 defeat to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games final. Admittedly, hockey in the 70’s and 80’s didn’t need too much of marketing as the government chipped in and nobody was a professional player as such. Most players held jobs with the Railways and Police. And invariably, one always had someone in the government who was trying to become IHF President, apart from MAM, of course. “It’s an emotional attachment for most of us,” said Mahajan once, while watching a Nehru Cup final at the Shivaji Stadium, “The government is taking care of the expenses of the hockey team.”
Later, R Prasad, boss of the Indian Airlines became the IHF President but never pushed hockey beyond the ‘government grants’. In fact at times, he didn't even know the players who played for the national team.
KPS Gill came in 94’, all guns blazing, literally. His was the most extraordinary election in Bhopal where Punjab Police cops, officers and the rest roamed around in plain clothes, sat and drank tea in darkened hotel lobbies, revolvers and guns on the table. Gill, the then DGP Punjab Police, won unopposed. Gill did bring some of the sparkle back to the sport. But so caught up was he in his own ‘demigod status’, Gill forgot he was an IHF President and imploded when his own secretary-general K Jothikumaran was caught taking bribes for inducting players into the national team.
In 2008, after the Indian team couldn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics, Batra resigned as vice-president of the IHF and began the move to create Hockey India, became its secretary-general and then President. Batra is a businessman with major interests in automobiles, the hospitality sector and Solar Power. Over the last four years, along with bringing in revenues, results have also started to improve. Of course, his detractors will point out the 12th place finish at the London Olympics, but under him, India has won the Asian Games, were the finalists at the Champions Trophy in London, quarter-finalists at the Rio Olympics and now winner of the ACT in Malaysia. The graph, critics will agree, is moving upwards. One of his biggest strengths is to keep negative noise away and hammer away at the things that he is required to do. Terry Walsh, whom he sacked after a protracted ego battle over some flimsy financial issues in the US that had nothing to do with Indian hockey, says, “Yes, I have huge differences with him. But he has also done well for Indian hockey.”
With the power centre moving to India, even though the FIH head-quarters will be in Lausanne, one can foresee changes happening in the way the sport might develop beyond the four-quarter format. Don’t forget, Batra is a former treasurer of the Delhi and Districts Cricket Association (DDCA) and has watched the cricket ‘revolution’ in terms of the T20.
And he will try and create indoor hockey as a viable alternative. Maybe, now India should send a team to the Indoor World Cup where almost every top European nation sends its best players. The last time, Asia was represented by Iran.
In Dubai, Batra said, “At the moment, 12-14 top nations play hockey and we need to expand it to 25.” But for that, you need infrastructure and hockey is not as cheap as other sport; hockey infrastructure requires an actor-turf at the least, which is in the region of a minimum 2 crores per turf.
Back at home in India, Batra will quit as Hockey India president. And if he really wants to leave a legacy, bring back the sport to its former popularity, and create a strong financial core, he needs to revive university hockey and bring club hockey back. The Hockey India League will be strengthened and, as Roelant Oltmans, Indian coach said, ‘India need to play the top nations regularly’ which will now become a reality too.
Sixty-eight members out of the 118 voted for Narinder Batra and the baton was passed off smoothly from outgoing president, Spain’s Leandro Negre, who has been one of the rare European presidents to have pushed for India to come back into the inner circle of world hockey. Hockey India insiders say revenues have climbed to $16million while FIH earned $10 million; the impact of those numbers were not lost on the members who have voted for him.
After being elected FIH President, he told a foreign reporter, “Hockey is my passion. Hockey is in my blood. People in India will tell you that a person will be a nut case to leave cricket. If I was in cricket, I would have been the president of the cricket board today. The only thing I know is hockey.”
Two years back, at the FIH Congress in Marrakesh, Morocco, a 10-year Hockey Revolution strategy was launched with the primary aim of making hockey a global game that inspires the next generation. Narinder Batra seems to have happened at the right moment.