It’s time to rebuild

The Santiago debacle, no doubt, will haunt Indian hockey for a long, long time. But instead of brooding over the tragedy, it would only be appropriate to immediately revamp the sport and its administration in the country, writes S. Thyagarajan.

The wave of anger and anguish sweeping across the country following the Indian team’s failure to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics mirrors the nation’s sentimental attachment with hockey. An avalanche of words have been written and spoken since India slipped out of the sanctum sanctorum of the Olympics for the first time since 1928. A glittering chapter of the Indian hockey heritage was extinguished in about 10 minutes or so in the final of the Olympic qual ifying tournament in Santiago, Chile, on March 9.

If the Indian hockey aficionados failed to read the symptoms of this impending disaster, they should be described as naïve or ignoramuses. The Santiago tragedy was only a culmination of the cumulative failures of one and all. Pointing an accusing finger at one another may deflect the mood of melancholy briefly, but the depth and dimensions of the incredible calamity is bound to haunt the fraternity for a long, long time.

Factors contributing to this pathetic state are multi-dimensional. They stem from inefficient perception of the signals about the impending rot, self-deception, an unbelievable assumption that everything will settle down on its own and a total mismanagement of the resources.

What accentuated the matter and precipitated the debacle was the shifting and sacking of coaches, inconsistent and illogical selection of players leading to an inevitable shuffle before every tournament and subjecting the players to gruelling sessions at camps stretching for months. The unsettling effect on the psyche of the coaches and players was rarely addressed, and instead comfort was taken from victories in nondescript competitions or from a rare win against a top-rated country.

Those who point out to Indian hockey history, the nation winning six Olympic gold medals in a row, the emergence of Pakistan as a hockey powerhouse and the introduction of synthetic pitches from 1976, tend to ignore the elevation of standards all around the world as against India’s stagnation, or even deterioration.

European coaches, led by academicians like Horst Wein burnt a lot of midnight oil in devising and designing strategies to counter the famed 5-3-2 system. By mid-1970s, a pattern was in place and the concept of total hockey completely confounded the Asians.

Former Olympians in India and Pakistan parroted — they still continue to do so — about the virtues of Asian style, but never ventured to preserve the purity of it, or evolve a method to counter the European system which thrives on power, precision and perfection in penalty corners. While these three attributes brought the European and Australian teams goals and gold medals, the teams from the subcontinent were merely happy to please the aesthete with their touch, artistry and artful body dodges.

It’s not that the Asian style is archaic, but it needed to orient itself to the modern approach of fitness, fluency and forthright movements, which the Aussies have perfected. Alas, both India and Pakistan began to flounder.

The decline and fall of Indian hockey has to be studied in two parts — the era of natural grass and the post-synthetic surface phase. On grass the Asians excelled, as the results in the Olympics testify. The revolution in 1976 following the introduction of the synthetic pitch transformed the character of competitive hockey.

Failing to accept the inevitability of the trend, the Indian administrators glossed over it and even began using this as an alibi for India’s poor results. The coaches took the cue, citing umpiring as the chief impediment, while some sold the theory that all rule changes were aimed at destroying the fabric of Indian hockey. The Pakistanis weren’t far behind as they were also struck by this syndrome whenever they courted defeat. Apart from giving India an image as a bad loser and making it a laughing stock amidst the international hockey fraternity, these excuses only masked the incompetence in other spheres that were crying for attention.

Even as early as in the 1970s, the then IHF President, Ashwini Kumar, mooted the idea of a foreign coach and suggested using the services of Horst Wein. But it was shot down as being repugnant to the image of the seven-time Olympic gold medallist at that point of time.

The debate over employing a foreign coach went on and on, but no one was bold enough to bell the cat. If anything, a very, very clumsy and deplorable attempt was made to induct a German coach — Gerhard Rach — for the Athens Olympics weeks before the Games were scheduled to begin. The outcome needs no reiteration here.

Therefore, Indian hockey has been a case of missed opportunities and a clear lack of perception and perspective. The nation’s dismal record on synthetic turfs — India has not figured in the semifinals of a major event such as the Olympics and the World Cup since 1976 — is a testimony to the ineffective management and its pitiable sense of complacency.

Alarmed by the disgraceful decline of a major power, which boasts a huge television audience, the FIH took the initiative and designed a special project to arrest India’s slide. It nominated director Bob Davidzon, a seasoned administrator, umpire, and above all, a lover of Indian hockey, to prepare a blue print for identifying areas of deficiency. The report he produced, listing the weak points of Indian hockey, is still being debated and dissected. In effect, it largely remains unimplemented.

The FIH went further in its quest to help India by offering the services of a stalwart coach, Ric Charlesworth of Australia, to shape up the team. For reasons that are still unclear — our administrators are masters at turning a simple issue into a most complex one — Charlesworth continues to remain on the sidelines. Tragically, he was not available in Santiago even for consultation. Now, the IHF explains this in a most unconvincing fashion, citing a delay in signing the contract with the Australian. In stature, experience and achievements, no Indian coach today compares with Charlesworth. That the Indian hockey administration is dilly-dallying with the idea of handing the team to him projects the appalling state of callousness.

Quite frankly, there is no quick-fix solution. The priority now is to immediately revamp the hockey administration and inject a sense of realism. The only hope for India is that its junior players are shaping up well. It is time ‘who-is-to-bell-the-cat’ question is finally answered and the process of reconstruction began brick by brick. Recriminations and rancour, not to speak of the polemical exchanges now filling the newspaper columns and TV screens, are the evils that will push Indian hockey further down the pit of despair.