Mayor Radhakrishnan Hockey Stadium, the VIP section, top row, extreme right. Retired Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) employee V. Chokkaiah made this seat his own during the 2019 MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup.
“Come on, faster. More speed!” As Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) goalkeeper J. Chetan hollered at his teammates during pre-match drills on the day of the final against Punjab National Bank (PNB), the 69-year-old Chokkaiah's eyes darted from player to player as they sprinted across the turf.
From the warm-ups to the finish, from the swoosh of the hockey stick to the smacking sound of the ball, he soaked it all in at the stadium in Egmore.
Asked if he was an official, he chuckled. “No sir, I really like hockey. I just came early because I don't want this seat taken. It gives me the best view.”
Chokkaiah has not missed a single minute of Murugappa hockey action in the last seven years. “As a boy, I used to follow our school hockey team. I was fascinated by the sport ever since. And here at Murugappa, its free entry, what’s not to like?”
Fans such as Chokkaiah have been the beating heart of the 93-year-old competition which started as the Madras Challenge Cup in 1901. The tournament returned after a long gap in 1962, and established itself as a mainstream annual sporting event in Madras in the ‘70s and the ‘80s.
Those were the days of hockey on grass turf that hooked Barkat Ali. The 74-year-old former employee of MRF too makes it a point to catch the Murugappa tournament live in the stadium. What's more, he comes with a band of friends and fellow hockey lovers.
“I remember watching my first Gold Cup match in 1978 which was played at Chepauk [Stadium]. It is great to watch hockey because it makes the players link up and play as a unit. And it keeps you fit.”
Ali was part of a small group of twenty in the ‘80s who would meet once a year to watch hockey. Anyone interested was welcome. A small joining fee of Rs. 4 was collected from each member for use during matches.
“We used to pool money, buy a gift and present it to the best player of the final. It was nothing expensive, but it was to show our appreciation,” he said.
The loyal fans share a special connection with the games played on grass. Despite the introduction of the artificial turf in 1976 Montreal Olympics, hockey stayed on grass in Madras till 1994. Renuka Lakshmi, Secretary of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu, has fond memories of the days of yore. “I was following the tournament from the 70s, when I was in school. On the grass, the ball could be hit on the bounce and we had time to observe the movement of players. Nowadays, the game is faster, but it was more fun on grass.”
Tamil Nadu got its first artificial turf at the MRK Stadium in 1995 as a part of the SAFF Games. In 1996 (the year Madras was renamed as Chennai), the tourney shifted to the new surface in Egmore. M.V. Rama Rao, who represented Karnataka’s state teams and Canara Bank in the ‘90s recalls the excitement among the players.
“There was a charm to the tournament when I first started playing. Players like Bharat Chetri and Ignace Tirkey were eager to come here whenever they had a break from international duty,” said Rao, who continued his association with the tournament as a coach. This year, he was in charge of the Bengaluru Hockey Association team.
Over the years, the crowd at the stadium has thinned down. A few young fans come in, but many also leave before the game ends. Some stay till the end, hoping to win a gift hamper in the daily lucky draw.“How can you expect children to come and watch the matches when all parents talk about are studies,” said Ali.
According to Vignesh Bhaskaran, 28, the younger lot are swayed away by the glitz and glamour of cricket, especially the Indian Premier League (IPL).“The following for the game is not the same as cricket. Entry is free here, but there is no DJ to keep the spectators engaged like in the IPL. Among the spectators you see are members of local hockey teams and teams training in the complex,” said Vignesh, who played for Anna University hockey team a few years ago.
The MCC and Murugappa group have made a push to promote the game, conducting Chennai City Schools Hockey Tournament in 2019 featuring eight teams. A women’s tournament is in the works. Coaches of school teams have urged the organisers to look at conducting U-14 and U-16 tournaments. These initiatives will take time, but fans such as Ali are willing to stay with the sport all the way.
“Three of our group members have died. In our hearts, we want to watch every match just like earlier. But old age has its way. We come to the stadium whenever it is physically possible,” he said.
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