The confrontation between national hockey coach Paul van Ass and Hockey India president Narendra Batra is the latest episode in the saga within what was once a truly national game. The Dutchman, who took charge barely four months ago, left for home in a huff after the Hockey World League tournament in Antwerp, Belgium, earlier this month and has not arrived to take charge of the national camp. Van Ass has told the media his services had been terminated and the decision was conveyed to him by compatriot Roelant Oltmans, Indian hockey’s high performance director. The coach has pointed to his run-in with Mr Batra, blaming him for encroaching on his turf by addressing players on the pitch in Antwerp.
India qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics last year as Asian Games champions. But the thrashing by Australia and once European lightweights Belgium and Great Britain at Antwerp, along with Pakistan holding them to a draw, has left doubts over the team’s progress since. The poor showing provoked Batra to address the players, but van Ass has argued he had used the tournament to experiment with positions. Batra has hit back, saying van Ass was rude to him. There is a slim chance that van Ass might still return, but coach versus federation has played out from the time India swallowed their pride and engaged Gerard Rach as the first foreign coach ahead of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Germany’s Rach left, describing Indian hockey as a ‘mad house’. The was repeated with his successors Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs and Terry Walsh. The most high-profile departure was of former Aussie great Ric Charlesworth, who quit as consultant after the authorities asked the sports ministry not to clear him for the Olympics qualifier in Chile. India lost in the final and failed to make it to the Olympics for the first time. If van Ass was a bad choice, it was Batra who had recommended him for the job.
The Indian sports landscape is changing. Badminton, shooting and wrestling have all won medals. India no longer hopes for an Olympic medal in hockey. Such controversies only show how much the country’s sports federations interfere with the work of coaches. It is time administrators realised their boundaries and allowed professionals to do their job.