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Narinder Batra: Man in a tearing hurry

By Veturi Srivatsa
Narinder Batra, a law graduate from the University of Kashmir, is a powerful organiser. An industrialist with business interests in healthcare, automobiles, renewable energy, transportation, education, oil and gas, has chosen to make a mark for himself in hockey. He is proving to be as autocratic as some of his predecessors had been.

Indian hockey for years had been run by police officers with iron fists, taking refuge under an old rule in Punjab that police officers will manage the district hockey affairs leading to the senior most as the state association chief. This led to clubbing muscle, political and money power to complete the circuit.

It all started with Ashwini Kumar, a decorated police officer, who was at the helm of the Indian Hockey Federtion (IHF) for over 16 years. Then there was a lull for over a decade when outsiders like M.A.M. Ramaswamy and Raghunandan Prasad, to name a couple, came on the scene before another policeman Kanwar Pal Singh Gill took over the reins for a 16-year ruthless run.

Batra, with powerful political backing, has strong likes and dislikes and the language he uses to attack those he dislikes is certainly not civil. And he is in a tearing hurry.

The way he lashed out at the Director General of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for ignoring hockey playersí claims for the Arjuna Award was terrible. The offshoot of the spat is Batra announcing Hockey India’s (HI) own annual awards in various categories with a huge purse.

These awards are named after his young son Dhruv, who suddenly died in Marrakesh, Morocco, during the international hockey federation (FIH) Congress when the family accompanied him to see Batra receive the FIH Presidentís Award late last month.

The best player of the year in both men and womenís sections will receive Rs.25 lakh each. Emerging players in both the categories will receive Rs.10 lakh each and the best player in each position will get Rs.5 lakh. Itís fantastic.

In a short span of time Batra has achieved so much of clout that he has started to believe he is the man destined to run Indian sport. He has an opinion on every sports controversy keeping his secretariat busy dashing off mails to all and sundry.

Batraís next target was his own appointed national coach Terry Walsh. Suspecting the Australian is linking up with SAI and sports ministry, he is out to get him. He was riled at Walsh approaching SAI and the ministry for re-negotiating his contract which was to end earlier this week.

Of course, there were coachís demands which cannot be acceptable. For instance freedom to purchase consumable items for the team and also acquiring services of experts in the field at different phases of training in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

HI is unwilling to accept the funds for fear of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) getting after it and the government cannot to pay it directly to the team management and violate foreign exchange regulations. Eventually, SAI has agreed to buy the equipment on a priority basis. Thatís only part of the problem.

Batra has found a new stick to beat Walsh and get rid of him, his financial dealings with his previous employer — the US Hockey Federation. This was known to Batra even when he appointed Walsh as the national coach and the two had discussions over it.

Batra says he has document to prove fishy dealing of Walsh and so he should come clean. It is apparently something to do with the supply of some hockey software to the US federation.

The real bone of contention is the unreasonable demand of HI for Rs.40 crore when it has been granted Rs.15 crore from the Rs.150 crore earmarked for distribution among 36 national federations. Obviously, SAI expressed its inability to dole out such a huge sum for one federation. Instead of exploring ways and means to raise funds to organise at least the preliminary training camps before getting the substantive camps, HI has resorted to unfair methods to undermine SAI.

In this cacophony, the Walsh contract got drowned. The most objectionable aspect of it is the Australian wanting to function from his Perth office when there is no activity as such in India. This, he feels, will save the government his hotel expenses here. This is not acceptable to HI.

The government formed a panel comprising former Olympians Ajitpal Singh, Ashok Kumar and Zafar Iqbal to discuss a new contract for Walsh. The Australian is apparently not keen on even a hike in his emoluments, provided his other demands are met.

Some of the contractual clauses like the chief coach looking at juniors and holding clinics and seminars at state level are just impossible and these clauses have to be modified realistically, confining his work to the seniors and a couple of clinics to train coaches.

Even as he grudgingly hailed the contribution of the coach in getting India a direct entry to the Olympics by winning the Incheon Asian Games gold, Batra says the credit should go to the entire support staff, including High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans.

Then the speculation of Walsh not wanting to continue as he has already lined up a couple of offers while Batra on his part bravely stating that he has some reputable names in consideration to replace Walsh.

Curiously, both Walsh and HI swear by Oltmans. Walsh wants greater say for Oltmans in shaping up the Indian team while Batra says in the worst case scenario the Dutchman will double up as coach too.

In the meantime, Walsh is waiting for his new contract the sports minister has promised him and HI is waiting to find holes in it. Some say Walsh is not returning while others think things will get sorted out. There is much more to unfold in the sordid drama.

(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at v.srivatsa@ians.in)

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