October 26, 2007

Indian hockey needs the famed doctor, but…


By H Natarajan

If Dennis Lillee can mastermind MRF’s effort to unearth pace bowlers and Greg Chappell could be handed over the reins of coaching the national cricket team, there should have been no problems in the appointment of Ric Charlesworth as Technical Advisor of Indian hockey – a sport in which the decline and fall has been an national embarrasment.

Dr. Charlesworth’s credentials are impeccable, but if his appointment has not been received with elation and optimism, it’s because the process of the appointment and the poor timing are questionable. I wonder how KPS Gill, the unquestioned, unshakable and (as many would like to believe) unanswerable supremo of the Indian Hockey Federation, would have reacted if, say, the government were to appoint another man as the CEO of the body he spearheads. What would such an appointment do to his morale and standing as IHF? Would he have taken it lying down? It’s this insensitiveness in the approach that has caused deep resentment among the team management – coach Joachim Carvalho in particular.

Charlesworth’s appointment is an initiative of the FIH – the international apex body for the sport – who want India recover its lost glory. The move would have got a meaningful and positive response from the Indian hockey community had it come at another point of time. With the Beijing Olympic qualifiers just months away and Carvalho justifying his role by coaching the team to victory at the Asia Cup, Charlesworth’s appointment is ill-timed and disconcerting for the incumbent coach. Even if the ambit of Charlesworth’s expertise goes beyond the Indian men’s team, to include the national women’s team, percolating down to the grass-roots.

While Carvalho has made his displeasure public, the IHF has done precious little to clear the air by not defining the roles of the existing coach and Charlesworth. If it has, it’s not in the public domain. A knee-jerk reaction by Carvalho at this point of time could severely hamper the Indian team preparation ahead of the Olympic qualifiers and worsen things for Charlesworth in discharging his duties in India. Indians are an emotional lot, given to extreme mood swings and Charlesworth must be aware of Greg Chappell’s eventful tenure as the Indian team coach.

Instead of waiting for the procrastinating IHF to step in quickly, Charlesworth took a proactive decision to speak directly to Carvalho and assuage his feelings. The performance of the national men’s team at major international meets like the Olympics and World Cup is what matters most to the nation and Charlesworth cannot hope to do much if Carvalho is hostile – quietly or otherwise - to his role as an advisor and if the Indian team stands firmly behind the present coach. The Aussie’s swift PR exercise is brilliant, even if unconventional.

Charlesworth’s track record as a player, captain, coach and administrator has very few equals. As hockey player, he represented Australia in 227 matches, including five Olympics (counting the boycotted Moscow Games) and as many World Cups. He was a gold medalist and Player of the World Cup in 1986 and silver medalist at the 1976 Olympics. After his playing days, he coached the Australian women's hockey team from April 1993 till the end of the 2000 Sydney Olympics during which time he helped the team win the Champion's Trophy four times, the World Cup and Olympics twice each and Commonwealth Games once.

A doctor of medicine by qualification, he was also an excellent cricketer who played for Western Australia for eight years and even led them one year. In fact, he narrowly missed playing cricket for Australia after scoring 95 and 67 against the 1977 touring Indian side that was powered by the spin trio of EAS Prasanna, BS Chandrasekhar and S Venkataraghavan.

Charlesworth takes up his new assignment in India after relinquishing his post as high-performance manager for the New Zealand cricket team. Another feather in the high-achiever’s crowded cap was his 10-year tenure as Member of Parliament, representing the Australian Labor Party.

The doctor has no doubts about the talent in Indian hockey. What he would like to ascertain first hand is to, in his own words, “know the functioning of Indian hockey.” I doubt if a man as cerebral as Charlesworth would not be aware of the IHF’s functioning – a body that has been pilloried extensively for its poor administration. It’s Charlesworth administrative wisdom that made him react with subtle circumspection: "Everyday will bring a new challenge...the immediate one will be to discover how hockey works in India...to watch, learn and listen and to construct with Indians a better way forward."

If Greg Chappell took over as Indian team coach with his “Commitment to Excellence,” Charlesworth comes to India with a dream of shaping the eight-time Olympic champion’s Renaissance in world hockey. How effective he will eventually be will not depend as much on his unquestioned merits as one of the foremost brains in hockey as his ability to stay clear of the political minefields that he will encounter at every step in the vast country.

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