Many a slip between the cup and the lip

It's the final of the 91st All-India MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup, a tournament sans the glitz and glamour of some of the high-profile leagues, but one that's revered by those who play in it and those who watch it.

There are hundreds of spectators, who turn up every year to watch the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup.   -  PRAVEEN SUDEVAN

Eleven minutes to go. Bengaluru Hockey Association (BHA) is trailing 2-3 against Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). Jenjen Singh steals the ball from his team’s side of the pitch, explodes into the ONGC half, and blasts a near-perfect pass to K. R. Umesha, who’s just inches away from equalising, with no defenders near him. A goal now would possibly take this final, the 91st of the All-India MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup, to a shootout. But Umesha misses. The ball thuds into the board outside the boundary. The crowd, almost fully packing the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium, lets out a collective sigh.

Quietly popular

It’s a slightly muggy Sunday evening. The players, from both teams, aren’t household names. The teams aren’t franchises. They aren’t owned by multi-millionaire businessmen or Bollywood stars. They don't have any branded hashtag emojis trending on Twitter. There’s a Facebook Live of the match that sometimes hangs. The luxuries of a popular league, this tournament lacks. But there are hundreds of spectators, who turn up to watch its games religiously. There are players, who treat this tournament with reverence.

“Hockey means the life to us,” says K. Chandran, the secretary of Chennai Hockey Fans Association.   -  PRAVEEN SUDEVAN


For BHA’s V. R. Raghunath, this is “one of India’s A-grade tournaments, along with Bombay Gold Cup (and) Nehru (Cup).” After 229 international caps, he’s away from the Indian team on a sabbatical. The 28-year-old veteran wants to slow down, spend more time with his family and participate in more domestic tournaments. And, to play here, in front of a hockey-loving crowd, for him is a pleasurable experience.

The tournament’s dearer to his coach and former India goalkeeper Ashish Ballal. It was here he debuted for the Karnataka senior team. It was while playing in this tournament, he got a call for the India junior squad. It was this tournament that he’s won several times with Indian Airlines. “I am happy that I could come back here as a coach,” he says, “I am happy about what the MCC-Murugappa tournament has done for so many youngsters through the years.”

There’s a group of youth among the audience, which recognises the teams by their jersey colours: “red shirts” (BHA) and “white shirts” (ONGC). This group — it hoots, whistles, gasps, and sighs, all very loudly; it’s borderline boisterous.

Then, there’s another group — a septuagenarian foursome — of dull white ‘staches and semibald heads. Here, the noise is less, the observation is keener and the knowledge about the game is apparent. These guys, they’re seasoned viewers. They, part of the Chennai Hockey Fans Association, turn up for every final of this tournament. Before the match began, the association’s secretary, K. Chandran (71), a former local-level player himself, presented shawls to the captains of the teams.

“Hockey means the life to us,” he says. A few years back, he and his friends, hired an auto-rickshaw to promote the game in the city. In the 19 years since the association’s inception, he’s travelled to many places, even overseas, to cheer the Indian team. But, being in Chennai, the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup has a special place in his heart. “It’s a big deal to run a tournament for 91 years. Despite having a lot of businesses to look after, the people who run this keep doing it year after year. That’s why we too show our support.”

Then, there's good old Thomas. He’s 74, about 5’1”, dark, frail, and wearing full-rimmed rectangular light-brown glasses. Whatever’s the tournament, whoever's playing, even if very few are watching, he’s in the gallery, with a bagful of peanuts to sell. “Have them, and you wouldn't need medicines or a doctor, ever,” he promises his potential buyers. He isn't keen on talking though. “Will you then pay me two lakh rupees?” he asks snarkily, when approached for a conversation.

“He’s probably been here even before this stadium was built,” says a middle-aged spectator, who didn't want to be named, about Thomas. “He goes to all the stadiums (in the city).”

Whatever’s the tournament, whoever's playing, even if very few are watching, Thomas’s in the gallery, with a bagful of peanuts to sell.   -  PRAVEEN SUDEVAN


Thomas, then, speaks a little, when a paper-bundle of peanuts, costing Rs. 10, is bought. “There's no sportsperson who hasn't had my peanuts. From Gavaskar to Kapil Dev to Sachin to Dhanraj Pillay, everyone's had it,” he brags.

When asked if the crowd's always this big for a hockey game here, he replies, “No no, only for a Murugappa final.”

This is partly because the entry to the games are free. The people who run this tournament, do it every year sans profit. They bear the expenses of the players’ accommodation and travel. Then, there are prizes for players and spectators. This year’s winner took home Rs. 5 lakh and the runner-up, Rs. 2.5 lakh.

With all these expenses, what makes the MCC-Murugappa association run this tournament year after year?

“Tradition,” says the tournament’s organising secretary C. N. Shanmugham. From Dhanraj Pillay to P. R. Sreejesh, some of the biggest names of Indian hockey have featured in this nine-decade-old competition. “This (tournament) is ideal for youngsters to build a career, get jobs.”

BHA runs out of gas

BHA’s running out of time. The pursuit for an equaliser is getting more desperate. Rajkumar Pal, trying to pass from the the centre line, thuds his stick on the turf, completely missing the ball. Bijju Yirkal runs with the ball, slips and falls. Raghunath is yelling. Nothing’s working for BHA. Then, in the 70th minute, Machaiah snuffs out even the glimmer of hope by slotting home ONGC’s fourth and final goal.

ONGC has beaten BHA 4-2. The players, in “white shirts” and “red shirts”, smile and grimace respectively. A while after, they huddle in two groups for a customary post-match team talk. Prizes are given. Photographs are clicked. The national anthem is played. And, everyone disperses.

But next year, “white shirts”, “red shirts”, Thomas the peanut-seller, the old blokes from the Chennai Hockey Fans Association and others — they’re all likely to return for the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup, when it will take another step towards the 100-year-mark.

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