Narinder Batra calls himself the ‘outsider’. Unlike his rival candidates, who had decades of experience of working in the inner circles of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), Batra had been there only for the last two years. “I am new to all of you,” he stated at the beginning of his impromptu presentation to more than nations at the FIH Congress, minutes before the voting began in Dubai on Saturday.
Roughly half an hour later, 68 out of the 118 member nations eligible to vote, placed faith in the ‘outsider’ as Batra was elected to the most important position in world hockey. In doing so, he also ended the European hegemony and became the first Asian to be elected as the FIH president.
He is also only the third Indian to be the head of a global sporting body at present, Shashank Manohar (cricket) and N. Ramachandran (squash) being the other two.
Batra, also the president of Hockey India — a position he will now have to vacate — received 68 votes to easily surpass the minimum of 60 required for victory.
Ireland’s David Balbirnie claimed 29 votes, while 13 nations voted for Australia’s Ken Read. Batra succeeds Spaniard Leandro Negre, who had been at the helm of the FIH for eight years, and will take office immediately.
While his rivals focused more on the governance aspect, Batra’s pitch of increasing FIH’s revenue and expanding hockey’s reach seems to have struck a chord with the FIH members. And it is with good reason, too.
A businessman at heart, Batra has interests in automobile, healthcare, hospitality and solar power sectors, among others. Among finance minister Arun Jaitley’s close associates, Batra is former treasurer of the Delhi and Districts Cricket Association and took a leap into hockey administration after the suspension of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF).
He was instrumental in formation of Hockey India in 2009, albeit controversially, and became its secretary general.
From a corner room of his car showroom in Faridabad, Batra revived the sagging fortunes of Indian hockey in just six years. Once surviving at the mercy of the government grants, he made hockey financially independent. Hockey India is now the richest Olympic sports body in the country. It also generates maximum revenue among the hockey playing nations. In fact, Hockey India’s earnings ($16 million) in the last financial year were much higher than even FIH’s ($10 million), according to Batra.
India soon became the nerve-centre of world hockey; a source of major sponsorship and broadcast deals for the FIH. Since 2012, the country has hosted a major tournament every year while the Hockey India League (HIL) ended the monopoly of European Hockey League as the foremost club competition. All this reflected in India’s performance on field, with the team now ranked sixth in the world.
His abrasive nature meant Batra made a few enemies on the way, including each of India’s former coaches as well as neighbours Pakistan, with whom he cut off bilateral ties in 2014. He did not even spare the FIH, severely criticizing the body for its confusing rules following the Champions Trophy final earlier this year, which India narrowly lost to Australia. His high-handed working style, too, has attracted criticism.
Batra had earlier said he would not change his working style but struck a diplomatic note in his first address after being elected the FIH president. “The FIH office is well-oiled machinery. People involved in the FIH have been doing a remarkable job in terms of tournament and calendar. I would like to focus on increasing revenue and reach,” he said.
He will lead world hockey into a phase where it’ll be going through drastic changes, primarily in the Olympic qualification process. The FIH has axed its two flag-ship tournaments, Hockey World League and Champions Trophy after it came under fire from the players and officials for its confusing format.
The two tournaments will be replaced by a three-tier home and away competition, which is scheduled to come into effect in 2019 and will have a direct consequence on the qualification process for future Olympic Games. “I am a big supporter of the home and away format. I’ll also focus on club and indoor hockey because it attracts a lot of countries,” he said. “If there are 150 member nations, all of them will be playing. My focus is to ensure people can make career out of hockey.”
India-Pak ties on anvil
Moments after he was elected president of FIH, Narinder Batra hinted that India and Pakistan might resume bilateral ties and the national team might even travel to Pakistan for tournaments. The FIH will be introducing a three-tier home-and-away format, which will be the only Olympic qualifying tournament from 2019 onwards.
“With regards to India and Pakistan, there is political compulsion. No one has any idea when it’ll start or stop. But you can’t ignore international commitments,” Batra said. “If there is a home-and-away system, then both India and Pakistan will have to play in each other’s countries. As simple as that. You cannot ignore. If you ignore, you will miss your bus to the Olympics. India-Pakistan has always been high-intensity games. Good viewership. So home and away would be a good addition to that.”
However, he added there might be a possibility of playing at a neutral venue. “If there are any political issues because of which you cannot travel (to Pakistan) then you can go to a neutral venue,” he said. Batra said the ‘old issues’ between the two countries were resolved after he held talks with a Pakistani delegation on Friday. India had cut off bilateral ties with Pakistan after their players misbehaved with the crowd in Bhubaneswar following their win over India in the semifinal of the 2014 Champions Trophy.