A new dimension in Indian hockey

The Indian players at the National camp in Balewadi corrected misconceptions among hockey administrators about the players being a hapless bunch, satisfied with scraps thrown their way in the keenness to wear national colours. The 22 internationals, whose approach during the face-to-face negotiations with Hockey India officials was remarkable for unity in action and clarity of thought, came across as young men ready to assert themselves without any fear when the opportunity arose.

The players are career-oriented individuals in the prime of youth, for whom money is as good a motivating factor as the honour of representing the nation at World Cups or the Olympic Games. The thought process is similar to that of any bright youngster in the corporate world, waiting for the opportunity to move up in life using talent, training and experience in a chosen field.

The administrators did not bother to understand the mindset of the players, tending to believe strongly that they are servile individuals whose livelihood depended on meagre allowances paid for attending national camps and tour allowances handed out during matches. Most of the Balewadi campers, whom the HI officials attempted to talk down instead of winning their trust and respect, are employed with public sector companies such as Air India, Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum etc and attached to star-studded hockey teams.

Attending long-duration India camps, like the ongoing one for the 2010 World Cup, is a financial loss for these internationals for whom motivation to win titles in domestic hockey tournaments comes in the form of substantial allowances, performance-based incentives, good hotel accommodation and the best of equipment. Questioning the HI officials’ decision to brand them as mercenaries, striker Deepak Thakur pointed out that he could have earned Rs. 50,000 by playing 10 days of domestic tournaments for IOC, which he was actually forfeiting by attending the national camp.

Thakur was one of four player-spokespersons during the Balewadi standoff, along with forwards Prabhjyot Singh, Arjun Halappa and custodian Adrian D’ Souza. All four took an active part in the negotiations and faced the nation to explain their viewpoint. The confidence displayed on the field was reflected in their body language off the field too. Thakur and Prabhjyot are Deputy Managers with IOC, while Halappa is a Deputy Manager with Air India. D’Souza is an Assistant Manager with Air India. All four have played club hockey in the Bundesliga, the German league, and so have been exposed to the professional hockey structure in Europe.

Indian hockey is a paradox. The national team has a corporate sponsor, the internationals display the sponsor’s name on their shirts at international events, but there are no match fees from HI and the daily allowances are so low that it is humiliating to even mention them.

Goalkeeper D’Souza revealed that he got $14 as daily allowance for the 2009 Azlan Shah Cup, which India won defeating Malaysia 3-1 in the final. The national team players said during media briefings that such daily allowances were not sufficient to even buy them a cup of tea at the official hotel where all participants stayed.

Thakur, Prabhjyot, Halappa, D’Souza and others at Balewadi, who are in the reckoning for places in the Indian 2010 World Cup squad, are familiar with commercial aspects of sport like match fees, sponsorship and television rights. Asking for cash incentives for victories in 2009 was just the beginning of a struggle by the 22 players to ensure remuneration for all those who figured in winning teams last year. The refusal by HI to respond to initial written communication, leading to stronger action, evoked an ultimatum from administrators instead of understanding.

HI can use internationals with established reputations in promoting the sport through hockey carnivals, clinics and television shows. Prabhjyot was among the FIH nominees for the 2007 ‘Male Player of the Year’ award. D’Souza was the first Indian to be among the FIH nominees for the ‘Most Promising Youngster’ category in 2007. Neither went on to win awards, but continue to be match-winners for India.

Cricket continues to attract crowds, sponsors and public regardless of India’s performances in the 50:50 World Cup or the T20 World Cup. Players become larger-than-life personalities and marketing takes care of the rest. Hockey officials can take the cue and convert the best players into youth icons, instead of projecting them as mercenaries. It is a win-win situation for India’s national game.