Many questions, few answers as Indian hockey seeks a revival from the bottom

Some of the biggest names in Indian hockey were seen in action during the recently concluded Men's National hockey Championships, but there are bigger questions at the end of the event, pertaining to the future of the sport in the country.

Punjab won its first national title in five years, registering a 2-1 win against Petroleum Sports Promotion Board in the final of the 8th Men's National Hockey Championships on Sunday.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

The eighth edition of the Men's National hockey Championships A Division came to an end on Sunday when Punjab regained the title after five years after defeating debutant Petroleum Sports Promotion Board  (PSPB) in the final. The two losing semifinalists were Air India and Railways. Some of the biggest names in Indian hockey were seen in action during the 10 day competition, but there are bigger questions at the end of the event.

With some of the biggest names in Indian hockey on its rolls, PSPB is no lightweight. Seven of its players here are current national campers. Yet, affiliation issues meant it was not part of the premier domestic tournament for the first six years and participated in the B Division in 2017. Its employees turned out for different state teams but become a force only playing together.

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Its addition to the A Division, however, took the total number of institutional sides in the 20-team competition to 10. Five in the last eight were institutions and, barring the first two years, an institutional side has won the title every time. Until the final minute strike that helped Punjab win, signs were all there the trend would continue this year as well. Even for the winning Punjab side, a majority belong to Punjab Police, making it a semi-institutional side.

A team like Jharkhand, one of the nurseries of Indian hockey, finished last and would be relegated next year. Haryana, UP and Karnataka failed to make the grade up from the league stages. Next year, two more institutional sides will join the ranks after Canara Bank and PNB reached the final in the B Division. The one good thing to come out of all this is the growing avenue for players to try and get a job.

Gap between state and institutional teams

Between the A and B Divisions, there were 17 institutional sides, excluding the Sports Authority of India. Besides, a team like Services has players from all three wings of armed forces, which also have separate teams. While the pay-grade may not exactly be luxurious, for someone unlikely to make the top draw and more keen on job security, it plays a big role.

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But there are quite a few concerned at the huge gap between state sides and institutional teams. “The nationals is supposed to bring the best of Indian hockey together. But the gap between state sides and institutional teams is so wide it becomes a mockery. Imagine, if even a struggling, worn-out Air India can reach the semifinals riding on its ageing warhorses, what must be the standard of play? May be a way out could be two divisions like now but consisting of only institutional sides in one and state sides in another,” said a senior Air India player.

Dependence on senior players

The format is the least of Hockey India's troubles. There is a paucity of talent at the grassroots that doesn't augur well for the sport. High Performance Director David John, who oversaw all the games here barring the semis and final, shrugged and said he could see maybe 8-10 youngsters with potential across the 20 teams who could be considered
for future even as senior players continue to prove match-winners for their sides.

One of them, though, has decided to move on. PSPB captain Tushar Khandker, coach with the national side till some time back, confirmed this would be his last national championships, having been appointed coach at the Madhya Pradesh Hockey Academy, which has former India coach MK Kaushik in-charge now. While Khandker isn't sure of his role as yet, he knows he won't play the tournament any more. “At 34-35 it is not easy to match up with 20-21 year olds. The skills may be there but the legs aren't the same. If I don't admit it, I would be an idiot,” he candidly admitted.

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PSPB would not be affected too much but Air India would if it did away with its seniors, which forces them to continue. The last recruitment the company made was way back in 2007 – Shivendra Singh being the lucky one. With even the future of Air India unclear at the moment, sports quota is the last thing on the management's mind. In fact, the players are concerned whether a team would be retained at all once the disinvestment process is over and whether they will keep their jobs.

“In such a scenario, what do you expect from us? The fact that we are even participating is an achievement. And that we are reaching the semis and finals of domestic tournaments with our 35-year olds is not just reflective of our struggles but also a warning about state of domestic hockey,” another senior explained, not willing to be quoted citing official rules.

General disinteres

Add to it the general disinterest. There was no broadcast of even the medal round matches this time around, the organisers and DD Sports officials passing the blame to each other and making miscommunication an excuse. Despite the event being organised in a stadium in the middle of the city, there were no spectators. Even the local media wasn't too bothered. Sources said a major sponsor had refused to pay up because none of the promises made – telecast and the Chief Minister as chief guest among others – were kept.

There is no one easy solution for years of apathy and neglect. The gradual increase in numbers gives hopes of quantity. But the smaller issues together paint a less-than-healthy picture of the quality of Indian hockey. It needs a lot more to effect a revival.