A shot in the arm

S. THYAGARAJAN

WOMEN'S hockey in India waltzed into the realm of excellence on August 3. The golden dawn broke on a salubrious day at Manchester during the Commonwealth Games. The first ever victory over England, for the top spot, was dramatic what with the Golden goal giving way to needless polemics and procrastination over the confirmation of the verdict.

Given up as a lost case after rather lacklustre show in the two opening matches, India bounced back, profiting from the new tournament regulation of giving a chance to the second and third placed teams in the pool, allowing only the leader of the pool a direct entry into the semi-final. By eliminating South Africa, a no mean opposition by a Golden goal, and then edging out the Kiwis in the semi-final with a final minute match-winner, the Indians proved how erroneous has been the assumption and projection of their capability.

Inevitably, the golden moment of Manchester triggers a mood of nostalgia and transports an avid chronicler to an equally memorable occasion two decades ago. At the Asian Games in New Delhi, where women's hockey was introduced, the Indians triumphed against South Korea for the gold. In fact, this win somewhat overshadowed the disastrous defeat of the men's team against Pakistan in the final. The cluster of stars then like Selma D'Silva, Rajbeer Kaur, Omana Kumari, Nazleen Madraswala and Eliza Nelson contributed immensely to the ultimate triumph which established India as a major power in the continent at that point of time. Even as early as 1974, India was reckoned as a major force when the women's team sailed into the semi-final of the World Cup in Mandelieu (France). Those were the halcyon days of Nirmala Mandana, Heather Fevelle, and the Britto sisters, Elveira and Rita, Rupa Saini and the rest. Not many even be aware today that Ann Lumsden of Bengal was the first recipient of the Arjuna Award for women's hockey, along with Prithipal Singh.

India celebrates after Mamta Kharab has netted the Golden goal.-REUTERS

Somewhere down the line, India lost the moorings, purely on account of the consciously created administrative imbroglio. Factionalism, the cancer which is eating into our creativity in every starta of life, was nothing alien even to women's hockey. For long the national federation was a divided house, and, unfortunately, continues to be so. Else, it is not easy to reconcile to the opposition for the continuance of Arnawaz Damania, former President of the Federation, as a member of the Competitions Committee in the International Hockey Federation. The articulate member was effectively silenced in the FIH with whom she had been associated for over two decades in one committee or the other.

Be that as it may, not everything has been smooth sailing either even with the treatment of players and coaches. The spat between the federation and the top stars over the coaching camp prior to the pre-Olympics at Osaka ended with India fielding an inexperienced team and losing the chance. The ego clash was so pronounced at that point between the officials and players. Coaches like Olympian Balbir Singh and even the present coach, G. S. Bhangu, had to leave in a trail of bitterness. Bhangu however has been reinstated and, happily, was a witness to the girls walking into the golden aura on that day at Manchester.

What needs to be stressed and acknowledged is the persistence of the players who have been fighting it out to be in the elite zone. Success seemed to elude them, be it in the World Cup qualifier in France or in the subsequent play-off series against the United States. India missed a berth for the next World Cup at Perth by a whisker in France. A controversy involving Ireland and Lithuania led to a series of formulations from the FIH, which even ruled that India should figure in a four-nation tournament involving Ireland, Lithuania and the United States in South Africa after the Champions Challenge. But the Ireland HF took the matter to the Court of Arbitration in the IOC, and got the verdict in its favour. The FIH had no option to ensure the United States got one more chance to qualify after missing the World Cup qualifier in France after the terrorist strikes on the WTC and the Pentagon.

Delhi was chosen as the venue for the three Test series between India and the United States to determine the seventh qualifier. But two days before the match, the U.S. team left, alleging security threat in the wake of the tension on Indo-Pak. border. Finally, the series was shifted to Cannock, in England, last month where India lost the third after showing exemplary performance in every one of the three Tests. English journalists who saw the Indians play in France, Manchester and even at Cannock, are unanimous that it is unimaginable that India is not counted as among the top 16 for the World Cup.

Admittedly, these matches against the U.S. and the previous four-nation event at the same venue enormously contributed to shaping a splendidly cohesive strike force. The consistency of effort displayed by Jyoti Kullu, Suman Bala, and Mamta Kharab, not to speak of the experience and enterprise of Sita Gussein and Pritam Siwach came into full play during the Commonwealth Games, leading to historic moments.

The question that pops up amidst the mood of euphoria is, how to consolidate the gains. A lot of it was last after a similar win in 1982 owing to improper administration and programmes. After 20 years, no official or a group can afford to fritter away the bonanza, for which the girls had sweated it out notwithstanding the shortcomings, including a stepmotherly treatment from the media. Hearteningly, the IWFA, which merged with the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) to form an Indian Hockey Confederation, has assembled, by accident or by design, a well balanced combination in which the proficiency of the adivasi content is pronounced. In fact, Mamta Kharab, the heroine of the final, was one of the nominees for the International Hockey Federation's award for the most promising player last year. The talent in the junior level is said to be enormous and showed out in the last Junior World Cup at Buenos Aires.

The IWHF should get cracking towards aiming for a podium finish at the coming Asian Games in Busan in September-October. The challenge is definitely formidable what with China and South Korea, both major powers now, in the fray. Japan is another difficult opponent. But the pity of it all is that the Commonwealth Champion is not even part of the top 16 countries which will be in action at the next World Cup in Perth in November-December. Here lies the irony.