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Shivendra case: No-one to speak up for India (Comment)

Tournament Director Ken Read’s rather officious justification of Shivendra Singh’s three-match suspension (reduced to two following appeal by India) in the ongoing Hockey World Cup might sound plausible, but the punishment exceeds the crime. If anything, it smacks of FIH making an example of a country whose hockey administrators have rarely shown the spunk to stand up and be counted.

From that infamous day in Dhaka 25 years ago, when six Indian players were suspended following the fracas in the Asia Cup final against Pakistan, our national team has always been under the scanner. The international umpiring community generally views the Asian style of play with some suspicion and it is given that they are instructed to keep a ‘close watch’ on the sub-continental players especially in close tackles, like the one that Shivendra was involved in.

Shivendra’s back swipe after the ball was well in the clear is a typical instinctive reaction of an Indian player to tackles from behind and is never intentional. It is a fairly common sight in domestic hockey where umpires tend to be rather lenient and not always strictly apply the latest interpretations. Thus, when the Indian teams play international tournaments, the old habits surface and are heavily penalised.

In the present instance, a two-match suspension defies logic. The on-field umpires missed the incident that at best merited a warning. The point is that Read’s perception of the level of offence (‘reckless behaviour’) is open to question.

Read’s justification of slapping the ban — although Pakistan did not lodge any official protest — reflects a man who is a law unto himself. He held a similar position in the 2006 World Cup where two of Australia’s goals from penalty corner in the semi-final against South Korea were illegal as the ball was stopped inside the circle. Umpire Christian Blasch of Germany allowed the goals.

The TV replays left no room for doubt. Australia went on to win 4-2. The Koreans were rather slow in lodging a protest as by then their bench had signed the score-sheet.

One wonders whether Read thought of looking at the replays and pulling up the two on-field umpires (Blasch and Henrik Ehlers of Denmark). Rather, Ehlers was ‘rewarded’ with a posting for the final where Germany beat Australia.

Earlier in the tournament, Read and the entire FIH top brass, including its then president, Els van Breda Vriesman of the Netherlands, witnessed the disgraceful fixed match between Germany and South Korea who played out a farcical goalless draw that eliminated the Dutch from the medal rounds. No action was taken, not even a token censure. The Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans fretted and fumed but did not lodge an official protest.

Rewind to the 1996 Olympic qualifier in Barcelona when Malaysia and India were involved in a fixed match, again a goalless draw that denied Canada a spot in the Atlanta Games later that year. The FIH reacted swiftly and launched an investigation into the sordid episode following Canada’s protest.

The outbursts of Indian team coach Cedric D’Souza against some of his own players who had secretly connived with the Malaysians, provided fresh fodder to FIH. Nothing came out of it since neither India nor Malaysia was guilty of breach of rule, but both lost face and credibility.

The two incidents reflect the double standards that the FIH is known for in dealing with acts of misconduct. If Read believes that investigation and subsequent punitive action are independent on protest from the aggrieved party, then the FIH should have acted in 2006. That it did not only strengthens the belief that there are different yardsticks to judge an act of misconduct.

(2.3.2010- The writer can be contacted at anandphilar@gmail.com)

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