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The Groundhog Day of Indian hockey: van Ass given the bum's rush

Shreyas Sharma | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:21 IST

Observing Indian hockey is like watching the Bill Murray-Andie MacDowell movie Groundhog Day. There is a certain inevitability to it; you know that even though things may start looking up, at the end of the day, Murray will die, only to wake up again on the same morning.

Similarly with the hockey team - a good performance or two, followed by a lean phase, and then the coach gets sacked.

The news of Dutchman Paul van Ass's sacking as India coach, therefore, is no surprise.

Established precedent

Each of van Ass's predecessors - Ric Charlesworth (technical adviser) and coaches Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs and Terry Walsh - has seen his tenure with Indian hockey come to an end with a bitter spat.

Each has come to India with a glowing reputation, done well, suffered a blip and been sacked at a most inopportune moment.

In van Ass's case, it was a public fallout with Hockey India president, Narinder Batra, that kicked off the chain of events leading to his dismissal.

Van Ass had informed the Hockey India brass that since the men's team had already qualified for next year's Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he would be experimenting with tactics, and that the results didn't matter much to him. According to sources, that didn't sit well with Batra.

It was during the Hockey World League Semi-final in Belgium last month, during India's quarter-final match against Malaysia, that Batra walked down to the team dugout to berate the players, leading to van Ass asking him to go away and leave the coaching to him.

This clash of egos, van Ass has claimed, led to him receiving communication earlier this month from his countryman and Hockey India's high-performance director, Roelant Oltmans, that his services would no longer be required.

The brouhaha surrounding van Ass's non-submission of a performance report and not reporting to the team's camp on Sunday is merely hogwash, if he is to be believed.

Ego clashes

Part of the pattern of dismissal of these coaches is that it usually happens just after the team has started buying into the coach's vision, when he tries to implement his long-term vision. This, of course, can happen only after an initial 'honeymoon period' of success.

These frequent changes of coach and philosophy affect the team morale no end. Time and again, the players have to adjust to a new personality, philosophy and linguistic gap, but it all leads nowhere.

It's obvious to even a casual observer that the main problem is a clash of egos. Batra has effectively been the supremo of Hockey India, as secretary and as president, ever since it replaced the discredited Indian Hockey Federation in 2008 as the sport's primary body in the country, but he just cannot seem to take anyone else asserting authority over the players.

Ric Charlesworth, Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs and Terry Walsh too have seen their tenures end with a bitter spat

As soon as a coach gets into a position where he is the power centre around whom the players galvanise themselves, Batra has to rush in and clean house. This state of flux keeps the players dependent on him, and keeps the power in his hands.

That's not to say that Batra doesn't have the interest of Indian hockey at heart - it's just that his own instinct is to keep himself in charge and stop the coach from becoming the lord and master of the players.

But let's face it - each of these coaches possessed unmatched pedigree. In the interests of Indian hockey, it would probably be worth it to let a coach finish what he has started and take the team as far as he can at the tournament that truly matters - the Olympic Games.

The role of Oltmans

In this regard, the role of Oltmans must be scrutinised too. As the high-performance manager, he is effectively the boss of all the sporting matters of Hockey India at every level, and yet, he allows the administrator, Batra, to run the show.

Oltmans himself has been a well-respected coach, and understands the game of hockey like few others. His tactical nous may be a bit outdated for modern-day hockey, but as a man manager, few can claim to have his skills.

So instead of trying to keep Batra happy in order to keep his own high-paying job, Oltmans should probably take the professional route of trying to convince his administrative masters to give a coach the space he needs to mould the team into a winner.

Hiring a coach, letting him settle down, spending good money, then dumping him unceremoniously and putting Oltmans in temporary charge is helping no one - not Indian hockey, not Batra, not the players and definitely not Oltmans himself.

First published: 21 July 2015, 8:33 IST
Shreyas Sharma @11shreyas

When the neighbours' kids were out playing cricket, Shreyas was umpiring, owing to a disease called laziness. His love for sports never went away, though, so he settled for the easy chair outside the boundary rope and became a journalist, first with ESPN and then, for more than five years, with Mail Today. Now an Assistant Editor with Catch News, his dream is to utilise his other 'talent' and become a humourist. Please don't encourage him by laughing at his jokes!