It will sound strange. Probably even bizarre and outlandish. But it won’t be out of the ordinary to say that Hockey India lacks moral ambiguity. In simple terms, it’s a lack of clarity in ethical-decision making. Sports in India is not serious business. Not yet. It still operates like small kingdoms and caliphates run by various federation bosses. Loosely, unprofessionalism and autocracy are the two boxes you tick off when someone says “Indian hockey”.
Otherwise, how do you explain a situation where almost all the top players turned out for the 9th National Hockey Championships without a national coach on board? It’s easy to construct an answer which would say “it wasn’t needed as Hockey India and its High Performance Director would pass on the relevant information to the coach whenever he joins”. As of now, the final date for inviting applications for the job of the chief coach for the national team has been pushed to Feb 28 from the previous January 31. In other words, the Indian team will depart for Ipoh, Malaysia to play the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup without a coach. Stepping in, as always, would be David John. That’s why the question — aren’t these knee-jerk reactions when a coach is fired or hired? Do we even bother looking at a long-term plan? If a coach crosses four years, many of us would think ‘stability’ has finally been achieved; leave alone results. When was the last time we had a coach for four years? Never. Roelant Oltmans was around for four years but as High Performance Director and then as Coach.
It’s pointless to point out that Hockey India has changed eleven coaches since 2010. Do those numbers make any sense any more? Have we even learnt anything from the past? From 2001 when Baldev Singh was coach for an invitations tournament, we changed ten coaches in ten years. So the math says 21 coaches in 20 years. Whichever way you look at those numbers, one reasoning stares back at us – an exercise in absurdity.
There is no clue as to which coach will now join the Indian team. Till now, we have had nine foreign coaches — Gerhard Rach (2004), Jose Brasa (2009-10), Michael Nobbs (2011-13), Roelant Oltmans (2013-17), Gregg Clark (2013), Terry Walsh (2014), Paul van Ass (2015), Roger van Gent (2016), Sjoerd Marijne (2017-18). Interestingly, the best finishes in a World Cup outside of the 1975 Cup triumph have been fifth in 1982 and 1994 and sixth in 2018. All three came with an Indian coach at the helm — Harmik Singh (1982), Cedric Dsouza (1994) and Harendra Singh (2018). Yet, we salivate at the thought of hiring a foreign coach. And when we engage a top gun like Terry Walsh or even a Paul van Ass, we chuck them. Not because they didn’t deliver. Rather, in the caliphate of Hockey India, ego and false pride hold sway over long-term planning and structured vision. Parochialism is mistaken for patriotism.
We are saddled with a history of eight Olympic gold medals that instead of being a fountainhead of inspiration has become a point of debilitating the Indian team. As coaches come and go different forms of playing structure are built and taken down. Confused and baffled players play both the coach and federation. Coaches with a strong personality resign and walk out. The weaker ones stay put.
With India not participating in the Pro League there is uncertainty regarding a sound schedule for an Indian team that needs to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. In March, India play the Azlan Shah Cup which should again be a mixed team, giving a few youngsters opportunities. By the time June comes, India would be playing the Olympic Qualifying in Bhubaneswar. Playing the final is important as that sets up India for a home and away qualifying match against an opponent that is yet to be decided. It’s a tricky situation. Team India are expected to climb down the rankings when they are released after the Pro League. The present fifth spot could go down to almost eighth in the FIH rankings.
Rather than search for a five-star coach, stability is the need of the hour. If the tactical acumen of a Walsh or a van Ass couldn’t impress Hockey India or ensure they had longer tenures, it’s difficult to imagine a coach who would enthuse the federation.
Not much has changed since Narinder Batra took over after KPS Gill. However, technically, he is the FIH president and officially doesn’t have anything to do with Hockey India. In 2005, in an interview to a newspaper, Batra, then senior vice-president, IHF, said, “People are laughing at us over the manner in which we have been treating our players and coaches. What right Mr Gill had to call Olympians losers?”
Since 2010, eleven coaches have gone. And during a social media rant after India lost in the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals, Batra not only accused the players of “indiscipline and groupism” he also labelled the Indian team as “complainers, bad and sore losers”.
It’s a tough period. Cynicism is the prevailing emotion in the sport. Yet there is enough talent and skill to ensure the team not only qualify for 2020 but also to maintain a high standard which keeps them in the top six. Salvation is not in the appointment of a coach but in the way the sport is administered. In front is the example of Belgium who didn’t even qualify for the 2010 World Cup but ignored the short-term for the larger picture and won the 2018 World Cup. There are no prepared scripts. No off-the-shelf quick-fix. On the day he was removed as coach, Harendra Singh said, “It’s time for everyone to take a deep look.” Maybe, there is still hope for redemption.
Revolving door for coaches
Hockey India has sacked five coaches of the men's hockey team in as many years
Terry Walsh (October 2013-October 2014): Led India to a silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and gold at the 2014 Asian Games, yet he was sacked in January 2015 after he complained of “too much interference” from Hockey India. Players acknowledge he made a significant difference. Terry coached Holland to silver at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Paul van Ass (Jan 2015 to June 2015): He had a bizarre experience of handling issues, majorly off the field. Van Ass, as he puts it, was asked to go. He called Narinder Batra an ‘autocratic administrator’. Batra’s response was ‘he is an incompetent coach.’ Paul van Ass took Holland to the 2012 London Olympic Final.
Roelant Oltmans (August 2015-September 2017): In his reign for two years, Oltmans coached India at the Olympics and had a fair amount of success. But even that did not mean he got a long term. Took Holland to the 96’ Olympic Gold and 98’ World Cup Gold.
Sjoerd Marijne (September 2017-May 2018): An extremely surprising appointee, he nevertheless had success with an ‘Oltmans-trained team’ to win the Asia Cup. But after a poor showing at the Azlan Shah Tournament and the Commonwealth Games, Marijne was asked to leave.
Harendra Singh (May 2018-January 2019): Won India silver at the prestigious Champions Trophy. Not winning the Asian Games Gold did him in more than the quarter final loss at the World Cup. Coached India to the 2016 Junior World Cup crown.
Correction: The Firspost Print version of this story used an incorrect image for Sjoerd Marijne. A correction will be run in the next edition of the paper.