In an exclusive interview with the new President of the International Hockey Federation, Sarah Juggins meets a man determined to meet challenges head-on.
Extending the number of teams who regularly qualify for major competitions; supporting hockey players to make a living through their sport; and recognising that a culture shift is needed to raise the number of elite female hockey players, are just three of the challenges that the new FIH president is determined to address during his time at the top table.
Dr Narinder Dhruv Batra is a man who expects to find solutions, and quickly. “I am a person who makes decisions, I certainly don’t like getting into a situation where a decision goes from committee to committee and, six months down the line, there is no action taken. I enjoy the challenge of solving problems but I like to find the correct solution quickly.”
Dr Batra has set out his stall early on in his tenure as the first non-European President of the International Hockey Federation (FIH). With the vote that saw 68 national associations give the President of Hockey India a significant victory over his two rivals, who polled 42 votes between them, Dr Batra also becomes the first Indian to be elected as chief of an Olympic sport’s international governing body.
Asked what motivated him to stand for the presidency of the FIH, the 59-year-old said: “You never know when life is going to end, there is no point waiting. I would never have stood against Leandro (Negre), but once his presidency came to an end, I decided to throw my hat into the ring, I have such a passion for the sport, which goes back to when I was a nine-year-old and first began playing the game.”
With wholesale support from across Asia, Africa and Central America, the new president will be able to push his agenda to extend the number of nations who regularly compete for the top honours. “The team at FIH does a great job. The organisation is well-managed and well-controlled and Jason McCracken [the new CEO who takes office in February 2017] will continue that. My task will be to push for the base to be expanded. The challenge is how to increase and expand the number of top teams and how to help nations who need support to develop hockey.”
During his election campaign, Dr Batra visited all five continents and says that he has a good grip on the issues facing nations. “I have got a substantial
idea of what each continent needs and these are often very different needs. It is not always financial. Whatever their needs, we should be making an
effort to support smaller nations.”
Dr Batra has form when it comes to raising hockey’s profile. When he was growing up, India was a powerhouse in the world of hockey. It remains the nation that has won the most Olympic gold medals (eight), although the last of these came in 1980.
As first Treasurer, then Secretary-General and finally President of Hockey India, it was a situation that Dr Batra was keen to address. “Hockey is our national sport but after the 1980s it began to fall away. The young generation were just not getting to see the sport because no-one likes watching losers. We knew we had to get back to winning ways and that is beginning to happen. Hockey India is heading in the right direction.”
The key factor in Hockey India’s revival has been the implementation of the Hockey India League, in which top Indian players combine in franchised teams with some of the top overseas players. There is a player auction in which the franchises bid for their players and then an exciting six week league is played out. The players themselves are paid good money, which has meant the very best players in the world have committed to the league.
The impact, says Dr Batra, has been two-fold. Firstly, it has opened the Indian players’ eyes to the styles of play employed by other nations; secondly, it has helped develop the skill and speed levels of those same players. The resulting influence on the national team has been very positive. A third outcome has been the increased profile of the sport – both for live audiences and on screen.
“We are in a situation now where the top players can make a living from playing hockey and people in the street are recognising the players. This is what we need, we need to create heroes and raise interest in the personalities within the game. It is happening: our players are appearing in magazine articles and on television.”
For many, it is Dr Batra who is singly responsible for India’s hockey revival. Under his stewardship, Hockey India’s income has grown from $500,000 (£399,000/€449,000) to $14.1 million (£11.3 million/€12.7 million) over a six-year period. Mohd Mushtaque Ahmad, the secretary general of Hockey India, believes much of the recent growth and development by Hockey India can be attributed to the contribution of Dr Batra: "Dr Batra has been instrumental in the rejuvenation of the sport in India over the last five years," said Ahmad.
Dr Batra himself is reluctant to accept the credit. “Hockey India is a totally professional and independent organisation now,” he says. “If any of its officers leave, that will not change the situation. Thank God for good things, although we should never be complacent,” he added with a wry smile.
One thing that the new president regrets is that he was unable to set up a league for India’s female hockey players. “That is my biggest regret, I wanted
to set up a league so the female players got the same benefits from the game. I don’t know how it will happen but we need a culture change in India.
At the moment, Indian women are expected to marry at 24 or 25. This is the family’s expectations. But from 21 to 29 is when a hockey player is in her
prime, a change in culture and belief is needed for the women’s game to develop.”
Certainly Dr Batra is not one to shy away from a problem. Within a few weeks of taking the helm at FIH, the organisation was plunged into a dispute when Pakistan’s junior team were unable to compete at the men’s Junior World Cup In Lucknow, India. The arguments about whose fault this is still continues but, I suggested, this must have been a difficult situation for the Dr Batra.
“Not at all,” was the swift response. “I don’t think like that. That was just a situation that came up: difficult situations come up all the time and I cannot worry about what conclusions people draw or what the media say. All I am interested in is whether the correct and honest decision was made and is the outcome for the good of hockey. You will never find me running away from a difficult decision.”
For all Dr Batra’s power and position, there is a humbleness and humour to new president as he spoke of the “faith” that the national associations had placed in him. “I hope I do a good job, I will certainly do whatever is necessary to get the work done and done well. I want to make sure that I do not betray the people who voted for me. And I want hockey players all over the world to know that the FIH is supporting them.
“I love this sport. It just keeps you on the edge of your seat, it is so fast and exciting. I have played every level of this game – school, state, university and club. Unfortunately, I never made international level,” he pauses. “Maybe that is when I realised I should move to the administrative side.”