With the 2016 Rio Olympics just 382 days away, Indian hockey has found its way into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. The Indian hockey board's tumultuous relationship with its foreign coaches has once again marred the team's reputation following the alleged sacking of coach Paul Van Ass on 20 July.
India's Dutch coach had created a flutter by claiming that he was fired by Hockey India following a public altercation with the board's chief Narinder Batra during one of the games at the Hockey World League semi-finals at Antwerp in June.
However, the Hockey India chief on 22 July hit back at Van Ass and slammed the Dutchman for not being a "good coach," while denying his claims of being sacked. He also said that a committee has been formed to decide on the fate of the coach and it will take a decision on 24 July.
While confirming his altercation with a "rude" Van Ass after India's match against Malaysia, Batra said that the Dutchman realised that it would have been difficult for him to deliver the goods in India as the system here is different.
The public altercation between the Indian coach and Batra, which has two versions of the incident, appears to be an ego issue - something Van Ass' predecessors are very well aware of. Whatever may have happened between the two, the Indian hockey is now left with the daunting task of getting accustomed to the new coach and deliver at the upcoming Summer Olympics.
Paul Van Ass' allegations
Van Ass claims that Narinder Batra invaded the pitch after India's Hockey World League quarter-final against Malaysia in June, which turned into an argument between him and the Hockey India President.
"He came onto the pitch and said something in Hindi to the players. I thought he was saying things like 'well done' and 'well played' but the tone was not such. Then I asked him to leave the pitch, it's not right," the 54-year-old said.
The Dutchman was later informed by Hockey India's high-performance director, Roelant Oltmans, that his stint as India's hockey coach was over.
Narinder Batra's defence
According to the Hockey India chief, after India's game against Malaysia, "We had formed a circle and I asked the coach if I could speak to the players. Paul said yes and that was when I started speaking to them."
"I was talking to them in Hindi. I spoke for about 45-50 seconds and told them that 'your performance needs to be consistent. You had defeated Australia in Australia. You need to be more consistent as you guys are playing together for four years now. Nobody likes to lose, not even the sponsors. So you need to be winning more'," Batra revealed.
"My next sentence would have been that forget about all the previous matches and concentrate on the upcoming games and try to be in the final. But before I could finish, Paul intervened and said 'I am the coach and you leave'. His tone was pretty rude."
"Then I left, saying that 'we will talk about this later, we need to talk about this, Paul'. After that India played two more matches, even the women's team was playing, I watched those matches but Paul never had the time to come to me or ask for any time," clarified Batra.
What ails Indian hockey
While Hockey India has already replaced numerous foreign coaches in a bid to regain the country's glory days in the sport, the European teams including Australia, Belgium and even Ireland have rapidly improved after working under the same coach. So what really is the problem for India?
The coaches in the European nations have the freedom to hammer out their plan of action and develop the team sans any interference from the hockey board. The coaches in these countries have the leeway to choose their support staff; assume full control of the situation, even when it comes to the selection of players, as well as the captain - that way a coach is in a better position to deliver.
However, India's inability to create a conducive environment where the players have the confidence to perform as well as learn and improve appears to be a major problem. The Indian hockey board has failed to provide the much-needed confidence to its coaches who eventually succumb to the politics of the office bearers.
It's not a problem of tactics; it all about keeping an ancestral system alive, like the selectors, the team being captain chosen by the board, Hockey India and SAI singling out players, when they speak their mind on issues concerning the sport.
Foreign coaches sacked in the past
Terry Walsh: The Australian replaced his fellow countryman Michael Nobbs as India's hockey coach in 2013. The 61-year-old led India to its only third Asian Games title in 2014 at Incheon, securing a berth at the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, despite visible improvements during his tenure, Walsh had been under constant pressure and was eventually forced to resign from his duties as India's coach in 2014. "I am finding considerable difficulty adjusting to the decision-making style of the sporting bureaucracy in India which I believe, in the long term, is not in the best interests of Indian hockey or its players," he wrote in his resignation letter to the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
Michael Nobbs: The Australian replaced Jose Brasa as India's hockey coach in 2011. The 61-year-old was at the helm of Indian hockey for almost two years but failed to bring the best out of the faction-ridden Indian players. India's failure to qualify for the FIH World League in 2013 following their sixth-place finish in qualifying phase led to the sacking of the Australian in the same year.
Jose Brasa: The Spaniard, who replaced Indian coach Joaquim Carvalho, did wonders with the country's hockey team. The 62-year-old shepherded the national side to a commendable bronze medal-winning effort at the 2010 Asian Games in China as well as a silver medal-winning effort at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Despite delivering results, Brasa was sacked in 2011 with a lot of former coaches coming out in support of the Spaniard.
Ric Charlesworth: The Australian's tumultuous association with Indian hockey lasted just 10 months in 2008 during the regime of KPS Gill-led erstwhile Indian Hockey Federation. He was appointed as the technical adviser to India's men's and women's hockey teams. "I had no support and was expected to do miracles," he said after getting sacked. In 2014, he coached Australia to success at the 2014 Hockey World Cup in Netherlands and was named the International Men's Coach of the Year 2014 by the International Hockey Federation.