Bring back the stars

Despite the lack of star attraction, the Murugappa Gold Cup had a decent footfall, with many thronging the venue for the final.

The victorious Indian Oil Corporation team.   -  R. Ragu

Deepak Thakur (orange jersey) of IOC took the 89th Murugappa Gold Cup by storm.   -  R. Ragu

The 89th edition of the hallowed MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup was won by a determined Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) team in Chennai recently. The meet, which was once an integral part of the country’s hockey calendar, has dropped down the pecking order, with top national players giving it a miss again.

Tournaments like the Bombay Gold Cup, Beighton Cup, Aga Khan Memorial, Surjit Singh Memorial, which have always provided a platform for youngsters to test their skills against the seasoned names of Indian hockey, suffer from a similar fate. This lack of star appeal has inversely affected the popularity of these events.

V. Baskaran, the skipper of the Indian team which last won the gold medal in the Olympics at the 1980 Moscow Games, perhaps to emphasise the point, asks a pertinent question: “When did you last see Sardar Singh play in Chennai?”

The answer is: a very, very long time ago. The current powerhouse of Indian hockey last played in the Southern city, as a part of the Indian Hockey Federation’s (IHF) junior team, in 2005. Taking the argument further, Baskaran adds: “How will you promote the sport if your top player doesn’t play in any domestic tournament?”

The national players were attending a camp in Shilaroo (Shimla), ahead of its European tour, and were not released to play the Murugappa Gold Cup by Hockey India.

“The older, local tournaments have lost its charm because of this (absence of top national players). They are not as popular as they used to be. Maybe the Murugappa Gold Cup is slightly better off, but most of these tournaments have little or no patronage,” Baskaran says. The former international wants the state associations to work closely with the tournament organisers and take up the responsibility of liaising with Hockey India to ensure a star-studded field.

Reminiscing the heydays of the Murugappa Gold Cup, he recalls: “The team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was picked on the basis of their performance in the Murugappa Gold Cup. Only the presence of top Indian players can promote the game.”

Taking a similar line, Conroy Remedios — the coach of the Mumbai men’s team — says: “In the 1980s and 90s, the stadiums used to be full. People would bunk work and come to the grounds early. Now, even the hockey players don’t come and watch these tournaments.”

He recalls the presence of Dhanraj Pillay, Sabu Varkey and Sandeep Somesh — top players of that time — in the 1999 edition of the Murugappa Gold Cup. “Almost all the top Indian internationals played that tournament. Every team had an international player. There were banners everywhere: ‘Come and watch Dhanraj play’. Organisers will attract a lot more people if they can put up a banner, which reads: ‘Come and watch Sardar.’ Every domestic tournament needs the participation of at least five to six players from the national setup to rekindle the public’s interest in hockey. Last year, top players like V. R. Raghunath took part in the Bombay Gold Cup and then joined the national camp after the final.”

Taking a different view, Mohammed Riaz, one of the star midfielders of the late 90s, feels the Murugappa Gold Cup still retains some of its charm, despite the absence of the star players. “People won’t come and watch it if it had lost its charm,” he says. “With India preparing for the 2016 Rio Olympics, it might not be possible to always release players from camps.”

Adam Sinclair, a member of the Indian squad for the 2004 Athens Olympics, also subscribes to the “overburn” theory and is of the opinion that the national coach might be reluctant to release players to protect them from injuries. He, however, laments the overall drop in standard at these “older” tournaments. “The standards have come down over the last decade. Even at this year’s Murugappa tournament, there were no proper man-marking or exhibition of great tactical play. Only IOC and Punjab & Sind Bank, which had former India players in their squads, played well,” he says. “The youngsters were not up to the mark.”

Deepak Thakur, an India veteran at 34, was the highest scorer at this year’s meet with 10 goals. “A small feint from Deepak brought defenders down. It was more one-touch hockey, the European style. There was no grace or style. These youngsters are in a transition phase,” Sinclair says. Lamenting the absence of players from the Indian side, K. K. Poonacha, who represented India in the 1994 World Cup, says: “If Indian players don’t play in domestic tournaments, there will be no competition. Players are even missing from the Senior Nationals and this is not a good sign. Maybe the prize money for these meets can be increased to attract the top players.”

Thakur minces no words in his criticism. “I have no idea why players in the camp aren’t playing in domestic tournaments. Maybe they are scared that they will be exposed when they play in domestic events. If you look over the last five years, it has been the same set of players, who are representing the national team,” he says. “There will be healthy competition only if national players participate in major domestic tournaments. The youngsters will get a chance to play against the best and the top players will also be on their toes, trying to stay ahead of the competition.”

Hockey India President Narinder Batra says there is no rigid rule that stops players, attending national camps, from playing in domestic meets. He, however, says it’s not always possible to release players. “You don’t want to break a camp when the team is preparing for a major European tour, ahead of the Olympics. We don’t want to create any confusion (amongst the players), especially at a time when Roelant Oltmans (High Performance Director and coach) has devised a specific training schedule for them. The coach’s message should reach the players well and clear. It is not about players getting injured,” he says. “But, we do have selectors at major domestic tournaments to pick promising players.”

The hockey India supremo also says that players will be asked to participate in domestic meets when there are no major international commitments. “We might send an India A or B team for a major domestic tournament in the future,” he adds.

Despite the lack of star attraction, the Murugappa Gold Cup had a decent footfall, with many thronging the venue for the final. Presence of national stars would have added more quality and glamour to the meet. All stakeholders need to get together to ensure that. If the value and the relevance of major domestic events recede, it will hit the national sport where it hurts most: at its very core.