It was the unofficial National game. Nay, it was the National game! It did not matter if it was official or not. Hockey had its place, competing with cricket and football. When India was shining in field hockey, there was reason for other disciplines to catch up. The game was rich with some of the greatest of India’s sporting icons. Those were the halcyon days of Indian hockey.
Nothing short of gold was the target for the Indian hockey team. The Olympic gold was a matter of right. Then came the Asian Games and the World Cup win in 1975 was confirmation of Indian hockey’s international dominance. And then came the phase when India watched hockey slip from its grasp! It continues.
Dhyan Chand was the original master of the game; a magician with the hockey stick. It was said the opponents suspected that his hockey stick was equipped with some kind of a ball-attracting element. The ball would remain glued to his stick and the game would be reduced to a one-man show with Dhyan Chand scoring at will from all angles possible. Not just the opponents but even some of his team-mates would just be reduced to spectators as Dhyan Chand left everyone on the field in a trance.
Dhyan Chand’s era gave way to Balbir Singh (Sr) emerging as the leader of the hockey brigade. Dhyan Chand won three gold medals at the Olympics from 1928 to 1936, the last one at Berlin when Adolf Hitler was among those left in an awe by his magical control over the ball. India’s hockey gold winning spree in the Olympics came to a harsh stop in 1960 when Pakistan came up with a formidable team. India won the gold back in 1964 only to surrender it in 1968.
For a nation that prided itself in its love for hockey, the 1972 Montreal Olympics marked a dark era as the team returned home without a medal. Worse was in store 40 years later when India finished 12 out of 12 at the 2012 London Olympics. There was no place to hide for Indian hockey which stared at the reality — it had become an embarrassment to its glorious past.
Strangely, there was no national uproar at the national game facing such disgrace at the Olympics. Fans of the game had come to accept the grave truth that India had slipped. There was some solace when India won the 1980 Olympics gold but there was no sheen in that medal. The 1980 Olympics saw 68 countries, led by the United States, boycotting the Games in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Two years before the Moscow Olympics, India had suffered a major setback at the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires in what was then regarded as its worst performance in hockey. The 1975 champion was placed sixth even as the nation mourned the decline amidst reports that there was no team spirit. It was left to commentators Surajit Sen and Jasdev Singh to keep encouraging the team which played like a novice. The impact of that humiliating show was huge and India never really recovered, the 1980 Olympic gold notwithstanding.
Hockey stuttered and stumbled but remained close to the hearts of the Indian sports lovers. International titles had dried up and there was an overall lack of enthusiasm among the administrators all over the country. It had a grave impact on the game. The lack of talent was evident as India was reduced to mere participation in big tournaments. “It was a difficult period for hockey. The game survived on government funding. The game needed a medal,” said Zafar Iqbal.
India’s decline was steady. The 1978 debacle at Buenos Aires was followed by the heart-breaking hammering at the National Stadium in the final of the 1982 Asian Games when India lost 7-1 to Pakistan after taking the lead. Stung by the goal, Pakistan came back roaring and decimated India in a show of all-round brilliance. In hindsight, Indian hockey died that day. Barring the 1998 Asian Games gold the team had little to show in the subsequent years.
The reasons for India’s poor hockey were many. Former stars were convinced that there was a lack of talent. “It was strange that we continued to do well at the junior level but fared badly at the next stage. It was hard to comprehend. India needed a miracle for the revival of its hockey,” noted Zafar Iqbal. The miracle remained elusive.
Administrative lapses left Indian hockey bleeding. Players were not treated with respect and this led to the game suffering immensely. It came to a disturbing stage when hockey players went on a strike demanding more money and incentives in the run up to the 2010 World Cup in Delhi. It was a crisis that shook the administration of hockey in India and needed intervention by former star Dhanraj Pillay who convinced the players to return to the field.
The strike by the players was symbolic of the state of the game. It was gasping for breath. Sponsorship was seen as the lifeline the game needed even though the government provided support by funding the training programmes and international participation. “The government did its best but results did not come. India needed to win a big title but it remained a dream,” lamented hockey ace Jagbir Singh.
The players on strike mirrored the rot that had set in due to factors neglected by the Hockey Federation. The players were convinced that the game was not being administered well. The “we don’t care” attitude of the officials created a sense of distrust among the many stakeholders of the game. The need was leadership on and off the turf. But it was wishful thinking for the well-wishers of hockey in India.
The dwindling participation of youth and the steep decline of club hockey were not good advertisements for the game. State championships disappeared and hockey players faced bleak financial security in the wake of disappearing job opportunities. Traditional hockey teams from Punjab, Railways and Services witnessed a rapid fall in attracting talent. Who was to blame?
“I think we all have to share the blame,” observed Ajitpal Singh, one of India’s finest players and captain of the 1975 World Cup winning team. “It is a combination of many factors. Poor administration, lack of talent and general apathy towards the game left many from my generation disillusioned.”
It was natural for Ajitpal to refer to the shift from natural grass to artificial turf as the main reason for India falling behind the rest. “Artificial turf was first used in 1972 and Olympics included it in 1976. Our first turf arrived only in 1982. We had lost crucial time and also suffered tactically. Artificial turf demanded more speed and power. As a result, our skills took a hit and we just played the catching up game. The introduction of astroturf took away the strength of Indian hockey, its skills with the stick. But I am happy we are playing good hockey. India is fifth in the world ranking and I am hopeful of some good days ahead,” said Ajitpal.
It is also true that the progress made by cricket, badminton, wrestling, athletics and shooting left hockey struggling to attract sponsorship. “How can you blame the sponsors? They will back only champions. Cricket is so well administered. They make the players wanted. Badminton has become a hugely popular game. Even shooting is attracting youth from middle-class backgrounds. But hockey is not able to make any impact by way of attracting youngsters. It is sad state of affairs no doubt but I am sure things will improve once India wins an international title (World Cup) or a medal at the Olympics,” stressed Zafar Iqbal.
The Indian Hockey Federation became Hockey India and a series of attempts were made to revive the game in India. But the methods appeared desperate and at times not in tune with the situation. The constant appointments of new coaches did not allow the team to settle down. It also did not allow the players to come to grips with tactics and style. The team was constantly under pressure even as the administration showed haste to show results to the authorities. No one benefited from these measures.
To the credit of the government, funds were made available for the players to train better and travel well. “The team looks fitter and stronger now,” said Ajitpal, confirming that the steps taken by HI deserved praise. “As far as Indian hockey is concerned, it is imperative for us to understand that we have to adapt fast and keep pace with the rest of the world.”
Astro-turf is not an intimidating thought for India now. The new rules, including rolling substitution, have allowed the team to challenge some of the strongest teams in world hockey. India is now the torchbearer of Asian hockey and much is expected from the current lot. A defeat on the hockey turf still hurts the nation. A big victory is what the game needs. The best part is that this generation of players does not believe in making excuses. Therein lies the faith that makes stalwarts like Ajitpal and Zafar hopeful of rosy days ahead for Indian hockey.
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