Last month, on the eve of the World Cup final, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) president Narinder Batra began his address by talking about the success of the tournament. However, within moments, the discussion veered towards Harendra Singh’s remarks about umpiring and the former Hockey India president couldn’t mask his dismay. “I have to follow certain protocols as FIH president. (But) once I am back in Delhi, then as a NOC (National Olympic Committee) president, I will review this misbehaviour,” he had said.
At that moment, many felt that Harendra’s fate was sealed. On paper, Batra isn’t involved with Indian hockey anymore. But the influence he continues to wield in Indian hockey is an open secret.
Moments after Batra’s outburst, former Australia player Kieran Govers teasingly asked his former teammate Chris Ciriello, who is India’s analytical coach, if he would be the ‘next coach’. Gonzalo Peillat, the outspoken Argentine drag-flicker who is one of the legends of modern game, was bemoaning his federation’s knack of ‘changing coaches every two years’. When reminded about India’s frequency, he rolled his eyes.
Most coaches, including Australian legend Ric Charlesworth and Belgium’s Shane McLeod, urged India not to make changes to the coaching and playing staff. Stability has been their secret of success.
Even as the new season gets underway, the coaching staff for most countries, so far, has stayed the same. Playing groups is more or less stable. With the Olympics a year away, stability is what most crave. But not if you are Hockey India.
The men’s team crisis goes far beyond mere coaching issues. This month, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) will start the Pro League, a six-month long home-and-away tournament that features the world’s best teams. The tournament doubles up as an Olympic qualifier, but India isn’t part of it.
India was initially a part of FIH’s plan. But then, a couple of years ago, Hockey India withdrew its teams.
Till date, there is no official explanation given for their decision because, perhaps, there isn’t any. By the time they realised the blunder and requested the FIH to reinstate them, it was too late and India will be a part of the Pro League in 2021.
Not playing Pro League has impacted the calendar in a way Hockey India didn’t foresee. Because of the tournament’s schedule, no top countries are available for competition till June. After a short break, they’ll all be involved in their continental championships. All this while, India will remain a spectator.
The national team, so far, has just two commitments this year. In March, India will play the annual Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. However, since it will coincide with the Pro League, India will have to make do by playing minnows in Malaysia.
The only other tournament this year will be at home, the FIH Series Finals – a competition for second-rung nations – where they will face the nobodys of world hockey like USA, Russia and Mexico.
Realising their goof-up, Hockey India has been mulling the idea of travelling to countries where the Pro League will be held and play friendly matches there.
The lack of competitive matches, many fear, could haunt the team towards the end of the year when the Olympic qualifiers will be held. India’s recent surge meant qualifying for Tokyo 2020 was never a doubt. But the change of coach and the instability within the playing group has now made it a tricky task.