India is capable of springing a surprise

The Indian team’s success will not depend just on the end results. It has to perform to its potential in the pool matches.

Hockey fans take a selfie with the World Cup campaign signboard in the background near the entrance gate of the Vani Vihar University campus in Bhubaneswar.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

As a child studying in Class V in St. Anthony’s Day School of Jesus and Mary, I didn’t have much idea about what the celebrations really meant on March 15, 1975 at my residence in Agra. I was wondering why petha, the famous sweet, was being distributed when India defeated Pakistan in the hockey World Cup.

The newspapers were flooded with coverage and pictures of hockey stars and the glittering trophy held by Sardar Ajitpal Singh along with the legendary Sardar Balbir Singh ji and other prominent players. Ours was a hockey loving family and I asked my father about the success stories related to the World Cup. He proudly shared them and also told me about the goals scored by Aslam Sher Khan, Ashok Kumar, Harcharan Singh and others.

The distribution of sweets never stopped as the people whom came to meet my father kept asking, “Aapki hockey team vishv cup jeet gayee hai meethai naheen khilaoge.” The whole nation was celebrating the success of a sport which was loved by one and all.

I didn’t show much interest in hockey even during the 1978 World Cup. All that changed during the 1981-82 World Cup, when India hosted the tournament for the first time, that too on natural grass, even though artificial turf had been introduced and top-level hockey was played on it.

Being a student of hockey in Sports College, it was compulsory for me and others to follow the matches. However, in the absence of regular television and limited media access and resources, we were confined to reports shared by our coaches and senior players or wait for our turn in the college library to read the coverage in the newspapers.

There were huge expectations from the Indian team, following its eighth gold medal win at the 1980 Olympics. Though it topped the scoring charts in the pool, India was a point behind Holland and thus failed to make it to the semifinals.

Had India made it to the last four, it could have been India vs Pakistan once again for the cheering fans.

The Indians among the goal-scorers were Rajinder Singh, Surinder Singh Sodhi, Surjit Singh and Mohammad Shahid, the magician, who was also a product of the sports hostel. All the above named were heroes for the youngsters who dreamt of making it big one day. It was for the first time the Indian fans could see their World Cup heroes and star players live in action in a top-level international tournament. It was disappointing that India could not win the Cup.

I had never thought that I would represent the national team, leave alone being a key member in any World Cup squad. But I made it to the side which saw the most difficult and hostile conditions during the 1990 World Cup at Lahore in Pakistan.

The hockey followers and new generation sports lovers had to wait until 2010 when India hosted the World Cup for the second time. It was on artificial surface with the regular hockey fan following drifting to other sports mainly due to the controversies both on and off the hockey field.

The new generation of fans with limited hockey success stories in their time had the opportunity to see their national team perform at home. India, at the start of the tournament, exceeded the expectations of a packed house on February 28, 2010, as it beat Pakistan 4-1, leading 4-0 until the 59th minute. I could hear the fans in the crowd shout “Asian Games 1982 ka badlaa aaj pura ho gaya.” This victory in the very first match pumped in huge enthusiasm and energy among the fans as, for many, beating Pakistan is always the ultimate wish. However, in spite of the stage being set and believing well begun is half done, India couldn’t achieve success. The only consolation was that India finished ahead of Pakistan in the end.

As a teenager in 1981-82, and now after 36 years, I am eagerly looking forward to India hosting the hockey World Cup for the third time. The beautiful city, Bhubaneswar, where every heart beats for hockey, is being dressed like a bride with the best designers working day and night. Odisha, the first state ever to sponsor a sport, especially hockey, because of its deeproot connect and contribution, will also be banking on the Indian team’s success. The involvement of filmstars, top-class preparations, city walls being painted in the colours of hockey, the state-of-the-art Kalinga Stadium, the exceptional arrangements and world-class facilities will not only set a benchmark, but, I feel, will also make it very challenging for the future host of any World Cup.

India is ranked No. 5 in the world, but with the presence of teams like Argentina, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and Germany, it may not be considered as a favourite to win the cup. But it can spring a surprise drawing inspiration from the performances of Argentina and Ireland in the recent past. The huge home crowd advantage should be utilised well to carry the momentum forward and not being carried away. The biggest challenge, though, for the team management would be to utilise the young talent from the Junior WC 2016 winning side who have made it to the senior team to sail smoothly with the experienced ones.

The Indian team’s success will not depend just on the end results. It has to perform to its potential in the pool matches, starting on November 28 against South Africa, followed by the crucial one against Belgium (December 2), before facing Canada on December 8. I feel strong about Team India and this could be the turning point for hockey in our nation.