‘Hockey is a sensible game’

“Talent is a must. Most of the teams do not have the talent. According to me, a talented player is one who has the ideas, one who thinks before receiving the ball. But now, the players think only after receiving the ball, thereby wasting much time,” says Ashok Kumar, the former India player and 1975 World Cup gold medal winner, in a chat with K. Keerthivasan.

The very mention of The Hindu brings a huge smile from Ashok Kumar. Lowering his spectacles, the 63-year-old former India hockey player who was part of the team that won the World Cup in 1975, says, “ The Goal, the autobiography of my father, Dhyan Chand, was serialised by Sport and Pastime (a sister publication of The Hindu ) in 1952. Who can forget it?”

While Dhyan Chand continues to be a great inspiration for even the current generation of players, his son, Ashok Kumar, is not far behind. Seeing him in the stands of the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai, from where he was watching the action in the Hockey India Junior Men’s National Championship, one realises that the superstar of the 1970s is still a revered figure. At regular intervals, a young player, or a coach, or an official goes over and touches Ashok Kumar’s feet to get his blessings.

As one who has watched a lot of matches, Ashok Kumar is not entirely happy with the juniors; he is of the view that they are not thinking hard enough about the game.

“Talent is a must,” he says. “Most of the teams do not have the talent. According to me, a talented player is one who has the ideas, one who thinks before receiving the ball. But now, the players think only after receiving the ball, thereby wasting much time.

“Hockey is a sensible game. Before receiving (a pass), one should know what to do. That is why preparation is important. Haryana and Punjab are talented sides, no doubt, but I am not sure about their players’ correct age.”

Ashok Kumar, who is the Technical Director and Advisor of the Madhya Pradesh State Hockey Academy, stresses that there should be a mandatory age verification process and surprise checks need to be made. “Hockey India should devise a foolproof method to stop the age fraud which has been going on for many years,” he says.

The Olympian is also annoyed by the poor quality of the pitch. “How can you play here? It is quite slippery and water logs here. This is not the right pitch for the Nationals,” Ashok Kumar rues.

All the negative emotions vanish the moment the talk veers round to his father, the iconic Dhyan Chand. “He was a reserved person. Since he was working with the Army, his way of showing affection was different. In fact, he didn’t show it. We were seven sons. He worked hard throughout his life and since he was away from the family throughout, we could hardly spend time with him. Only in the last two-three years, he was in Delhi. He was a very simple person,” Ashok Kumar says.

Was it a pleasure playing in Dhyan Chand’s giant shadow or did it entail pressure?

“In my days, he (Dhyan Chand) was the Chairman of the Selection Committee. That time, I had the feeling that my father was watching me and I have to prove my worth. I had some sense. I was fortunate to play with star players,” says Ashok Kumar, whose inspiration was Inam-ur-Rehman, a former India great.

Indian hockey has always been affected by politics and according to Ashok Kumar, he has seen first-hand how wrong selection has ruined players’ morale and affected the team as a whole. “(In) the Indian team of the 1960s, there was a lot of politics. I was young at that time, but could understand. Influential people got the nod to represent the country,” he says.

Recalling the Indian team bound for the 1968 Olympics, Ashok Kumar says, “Two captains were named for the 1968 Mexico Olympics — Gurbux Singh and Prithipal Singh. You can understand one set of players was with Gurbux and the other with Prithipal. We destroyed our quality by keeping talented players out of the team for no reason and bringing in bad players.

“We tried to raise our level in the 1970s, but again, the selection of the players was unfair and it affected the team’s performance.”

For Ashok Kumar, however, his dream was fulfilled when India won the gold medal at the 1975 World Cup.

The obsession for foreign coaches confounds him. “This sort of thing (foreign coaches are the solution for Indian hockey’s problems) I am hearing since 1994. For the last 5-6 years, foreign coaches have been there and it is not a short time. At this stage (the senior level) 1-2 years is sufficient to train the top players who have played nearly 100 internationals. It is for the players to perform; coaches must give the right advice as to what the players should do at the right time.

“Indian coaches are not inferior to foreign coaches. With the help of technology, Indian coaches, who are sensible, should make the difference. There are plenty of coaches who have lots of knowledge though they might not have the relevant certificates.”

If Indian hockey is to regain the spark it once had, a medal, either in the forthcoming Commonwealth Games (Glasgow), the Asian Games (Incheon, South Korea) or the World Cup (The Hague, Netherlands) is essential, says Ashok Kumar.