Troublemaker or Scapegoat?

The reasons that the best coaches are paid good salaries is because they know how to manage the players that they select. The good ones know when to drop, sell or off load at the right time.

In modern day sport there are many occasions where one player that the coach has failed to move on can turn not only the dressing room but also the administration against a coach; and then the coach pays the ultimate price for not getting rid of the player.

Hockey India has just handed down an extremely severe penalty to one of their most talented players Gurbaj Singh for allegedly “indulging in groupism and creating disharmony within the team,” at the recent Hockey World League semi finals in Belgium. Gurbaj has been suspended for nine months and will not be available to play for India again until May 09 2016. A suspension that almost surely means his chances of playing for India at the Rio Olympic Games have been dashed.

What is amazing is that his suspension is so long. If he had lashed out with his stick in a match, he probably would have only ended up with a two game or more suspension. Nine months seems an extremely harsh penalty, when it appears to be his word against one of the coaching staff’s. Publicly his  team mates have spoken out in support.

Last week The Indian Express reported Captain Sardar Singh as saying “I’m shocked to hear the charges against Gurbaj.” It went on to say that High Performance Director and now coach Roelant Oltmans “adds the accusations leveled against Gurbaj are not correct while vice-captain PR Sreejesh insists ‘he is one of the best players in the team and there’s nothing wrong in his behaviour.’ ”

After India’s dismal performance at the London Olympics, where they failed to win a game, Gurbaj was suspended for a brief period following similar accusations from the then chief coach Michael Nobbs and his support staff.

If Gurbaj is such a trouble-maker why was he restored to the side by Nobbs replacement Terry Walsh after great form in the Hockey India League with the Delhi Waveriders? Walsh and Delhi were successful and there were no allegations levelled at Gurbaj. Maybe his coaches at these two teams were able to harness the tiger that lurks inside Gurbaj, and bring out the best in him. As coaches they managed him.

Walsh’s replacement, Paul Van Ass, who was supposed to be a man manager rather than a coach continued to pick Gurbaj. He selected him for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and the Hockey World League semi finals. If Van Ass was as good a man manager as his reputation says he is, why was he unable to nip any issue in the bud?

Gurbaj like many of his team mates wants to win. He is incredibly talented, is the fittest player in the side and has great technical ability. Like many of his team mates he was very upset when Terry Walsh was dispensed with as head coach. Most of the playing group felt that India were finally on the right path and had a coach who understood them as individual players and knew how to bring the best out in them. In 2014 India had the best year in terms of international results for a very long time. The highlights being a series win against Australia in Australia and the gold medal at the Asian Games, a title India had not won since 1998, and one that booked them a place at the Rio Olympics.

Having watched the series win against Australia and having witnessed the performances at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup one could see that this was not the same happy team. The level of performance had dropped dramatically from previously, and the players looked uncomfortable trying to adapt to Van Ass’ more defensive structure. There was talk that the players held a meeting after a draw and two losses and decided to go back to playing the way Terry Walsh had taught them. Whatever the truth is they then beat Canada and Australia to book a place in the bronze medal game, which they won in a shoot out.

It was a remarkable turnaround and yet it would appear the powers that be failed to see the distinct change in the style of play. Maybe the Bronze medal hid the truth.

In Belgium, India went into the tournament with great expectations, and understandably so. Under Walsh in 2014 they had managed to record victories against many of the top sides in the World.

They did not play with flair or confidence and some of the positional selections seemed bizarre. These were explained away as Van Ass wanting players to be more adaptable and able to play on the left and the right-hand side of the pitch. It did not appear to be working, yet the talent on the pitch still managed to steer India to the semi finals. The only defeat they suffered being a mauling against a rampant Australia 6-2; India however were the only team to score two past Australia.

India were played off the park in the semi final by Belgium losing 4-0 and then again in the bronze medal match 5-1 against Great Britain.

Heading into these two games they looked a very dejected group of players. They had been lambasted publicly on the pitch by the Secretary General of Hockey India Dr Narinder Batra and also witnessed the coach, Van Ass, and Dr Batra have a heated argument following their quarter final win over Malaysia.

Paul Van Ass was the wrong fit for Indian hockey. He was trying to take them down a path that did not suit their style of play or the mentality that is one of India’s strength’s, the ability to attack quickly and efficiently.

Did Gurbaj, a fierce competitor, speak out against some of the tactics being advocated? Was he a spokesperson behind whom others lent their support? Being the competitor that he is, and who wants to win so badly, did he openly question the coach? If so in a western team his actions would not have been an issue, yet in India sadly they are.

No matter what he did one has to ask why the coaching staff were unable to handle it. If it was so bad why did they not sit him on the bench for prolonged periods and send a message to the player and his team mates; sure Rupinder Pal Singh had been injured along with Yuvraj Walmiki, but surely such actions would have helped make the point as to who was in charge even clearer. If it was that terrible they could have sent him home.

It appears that the coach lost many of the team at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. They continued to try and adapt his style of play in camp but once they started playing in Belgium they struggled with it. Gurbaj, and who knows maybe others, raised their concerns, however it appears to have been classified as creating disharmony in the team.

It is a sad day that India suspends one of its best players for so long. It is a sad day that the coaching staff could not have handled this situation in Belgium and moved on.

Sadly it is almost a case of history repeating, back in 1998 when India last won the Asian Games, and what was then for the first time in 32 years, the senior players spoke out to the then Indian Hockey Federation chief KPS Gill in regards to player payments. As a result of their speaking out Dhanraj Pillay, Mukesh Kumar, Sabu Varkey, Ashish Ballal, A.B Subbiah and Sandeep Somesh were “rested” for the series against Pakistan. Many of them never played for India again.

One cannot help feeling that if Gurbaj was such a trouble maker the coach should have handled it and taken necessary action to eliminate any negativity. The fact that he did not would indicate that some blame must rest with the coach. He is after all there to select not only the best team, but those players who will gel and work together. If there is a bad apple it is his job to throw that apple away. Van Ass never did so. Maybe he did not feel Gurbaj was a bad apple, have those sitting on the tribunal asked him? It has already been reported that he did not file a report on the tournament as he had been told his services were no longer required in Belgium.

Sadly for hockey fans Hockey India having parted ways with Paul Van Ass and now suspended Gurbaj for nine months appear to have thrown two apples away.


Troublemaker or Scapegoat?

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