By Veturi Srivatsa
Late last week, three things kept Indian sport in focus. The cricket team failed to make the tri-series final to end a dreadful tour of Australia, a Dutchman has been named the new national hockey coach and Leander Paes partnered another Martina (Hingis) to win his seventh Grand Slam title in mixed doubles to add to his eight in the men’s doubles.
If nothing appears beyond Paes even at 41, nothing seems to be going right for the cricket team with the World Cup less than two weeks away. The appointment of Paul van Ass, 54, as chief coach of the hockey team is a bolt from the blue with no media leaks or speculation ahead of the appointment.
Paes is so exciting to watch on a tennis court giving expression to his passion for the game. He has yet again proved that he can win a major with any partner, Hingis this time in Melbourne. Exactly ten years ago he had played with the other Martina, the legendary Navratilova, who even waited for him to return to court after a life-threatening parasitic infection.
Paes played with South African Raven Klassen at the Australian Open, his 99th partner in the men’s doubles, and Hingis was the 23rd in the mixed – an amazing record for a doubles specialist, who has been around for over a quarter of a century, playing over 40 weeks each year.
The beauty is in the tennis philosophy of Paes and Hingis. He was confident that he could do well with her where as the Hingis thought he would be better off playing with another circuit regular. Maybe, that made both of them to put in that extra bit of effort as there was little doubt about their exceptional skills.
How true is the strengths and weaknesses theory Paes has spoken of. Only two great exponents could plan it out so well to win without losing a set. That itself a remarkable thing in modern day doubles.
The Indian cricket team can get inspired by Paes’s zeal and determination. They need not worry too much about some people writing their chances of defending the World Cup off after their disastrous tour Down Under. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his players know that World Cup is a totally different format and they can bounce back with the rub of the green going their way.
Though the Indians would have liked a better preparation for the big event, they should be confident enough taking heart from their status as the No.2 team in the rankings of the One-Day Internationals.
They have a problem with the top order batting and may not be sure of their bowling composition what with the injuries to some of their key bowlers.
In fact, their in-form opener Rohit Sharma did not play the last three games nursing a hamstring. Likewise pacer Ishant Sharma did not bowl flat out even in the nets but stayed with the team for over a month. Now it is being said he may not be fit for the tournament itself.
Ravindra Jadeja is another bowler who is an iffy, though he bowled 9.5 overs when the day’s best bowler Stuart Binny bowled only eight. Obviously Dhoni was putting Jadeja through the ringer to test his fitness than worry about winning the match which they could have with a little imagination.
Let the team settle their fitness problems before discussing their chances of making the semi-finals.
Coming to the hockey development, none of the coaches in recent years left with any goodwill, some of them have literally been hounded out. At least two of them, Ric Charlesworth and Terry Walsh came with huge reputations, but the authorities just could not find a way to keep them.
The one man who seemed to have learnt the ropes to stay put is High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans, who also doubled up as coach at the Champions Trophy in Bhubaneshwar when Hockey India (HI) decided to sack Walsh.
Oltmans’ hand can clearly be seen in the appointment of compatriot Van Ass, who was in-charge of the Netherlands team for four years before being relieved at the end of his four-year term last year. Another Dutch Hans Streeder and Australian Alexander Grey were the other two to be short-listed along with Van Ass.
Walsh, who guided the team to win the Asian Games gold to make India the first team to directly qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics as continental champions, fell foul with HI strongman Narinder Batra by playing his cards wrong.
By all accounts, Van Ass is a no-nonsense coach and expects his players to fall in line. In his first interaction with an Indian journalist he said he believed in evolution and not revolution, whatever that may mean.
He should be happy to take over a team that beat Belgium and his native Dutch in the Champions Trophy to finish fourth in a tournament which was played among the eight best teams in the world, less than two months ago.
It is to be seen how long the two new coaches can put up with the HI bosses who may not like the stated approach of Van Ass.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at v.srivatsa)