Women's game needs a shot in the arm

“Frankly speaking, we don't have enough bench strength. We just have 16 players who I hope are the best. We need to scout for talent,” says Neil Hawgood,the women's team coach.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The number of competitions for women internationally is just a fraction of what the men get. At home, apart from the national championships, there are practically no tournaments for women, writes Uthra Ganesan.

When Neil Hawgood took charge as coach of the Indian women’s hockey team in August last, one of the first things he did was to point to the paucity of players he had to work with. And the Australian had fixed his sights on the National Championships (in October 2012) to farm fresh talent.

The end of this year’s edition recently would have left him in despair. For, despite the change in personnel and the influx of foreign hands at the highest level, little has changed in the script of women’s hockey in the country.

The number of teams has grown from 24 to 29 in three years (under the aegis of Hockey India; there are no official records for the competition before that, neither was the tournament held on a regular basis though the number of teams varied between 14-18) but the hierarchy hasn’t changed much. Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Punjab among the state sides and Railways as an institutional team have always been in the top eight of the competition (even during the Indian Hockey Federation era) and they continued to dominate this year as well.

“Frankly speaking, we don't have enough bench strength. We just have 16 players who I hope are the best. We need to scout for talent,” Hawgood had said ahead of the Champions Challenge last year in September. But the above mentioned states are all traditional nurseries for producing talent in women’s hockey. No new pockets of talent are being explored. In fact, despite a rich heritage of hockey, states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have failed to break into the top echelons on the domestic circuit.

While Haryana did break Railways’ stranglehold over the title, there was no denying the fact that it was more a reiteration of the state’s contribution to Indian women’s hockey than anything else. For, a majority of Haryana players were Railways employees who failed to make the team. Vice versa, most of the players who took to the field for Railways honed their skills on the grounds of Shahbad, a small district of Haryana.

What the Lucknow edition of the women’s national championships also proved was that, despite all the efforts to modernise the national teams, the sport remains amateur and poorly organised at the grassroots. Empty coffers and lack of infrastructure is a big reason for the same but these cannot be excuses, especially when the national federation is sparing no expense at the top.

The teams at Lucknow were put up at sports hostels in the city with transportation and food. But they had to travel more than 15 kilometres to reach the venue of the competition on the outskirts. In a place like Lucknow, that’s like traversing the length of the entire city. The matches were held as early as 6.30 a.m., or at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., in searing heat. No team was able to give its best under these circumstances. “We are forced to do this because there are no floodlights here,” said organising secretary R. P. Singh. What he left unsaid was that a proposal to get them installed was approved, in principle, more than two years ago but there has been no development after that.

“Forget these girls, we are unable to sit for an entire match in the shade, with the hot air blowing.

“This is a farce in the name of nationals,” accused Sujit Kumar, former India player and a Lucknow resident. The timings and the venue of the competition meant apart from team and tournament officials, no one was present to watch the best Indian women’s hockey players in the country. Even the trainees from the Guru Govind Singh Sports College — which hosted the event — did not turn up for the games.

Haryana and Railway Sports Promotion Board players fight it out in the final of the senior national Championship at the Major Dhyanchand Stadium in Lucknow. The matches were played in searing heat and the stands were emply throughout the championship.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Half the people in the city did not know of the venue and most of them were unaware of the competition. If the idea is to popularise the sport and make it attractive, the event was a very poor advertisement for the same.

When Dutch coaching legend Roelant Oltmans took charge as the High Performance Manager for Indian hockey, he knew he had a tough job on hand. But he has been travelling with the national team, first the women and then the men. Had he been present at the national championships, he would have realised the gravity and enormity of the job he has been entrusted with.

The mandarins who run the sport in the country need to take a hard look at the state of women’s hockey. The number of competitions for women internationally is just a fraction of what the men get. At home, apart from the national championships, there are practically no tournaments for women.

It is no secret that, vis-à-vis the men, Indian women can break into the elite circle of top-five in the world much faster. But for that, they need to be treated on a par with the men. The appointment of Hawgood and team trainer Matthew Tredea is a step in that direction — only the first. There are miles to go still.