Once upon a time in Indian hockey

Despite Indian hockey today not being anywhere near its glory days, it is the only team sport to feature in the Olympics where our national teams have more or less stayed in or around the top bracket of world ranking leaderboards.

What is the difference between Kabir Khan and Sjoerd Marijne?

The former coached the Indian women’s hockey team to World Cup glory. Eleven years later, on the hard turfs of reality separated from the wishful nationalist romanticism that often accompanies fictionalised depictions of sport on the silver screen, all Marijne has managed is a quarterfinal exit, which is an improvement (thanks largely to the revised format in this edition) for our eves on their last four appearances. Yet, as they stood on the verge of making the semis, the relative indifference in viewership could not have been more striking. Following Aditya Sharma’s question in “A look at Indian sport from various angles” (Sportstar Live, Your Opinion, August 29, 2017), we may wonder if Chak De! India should have inspired and sustained a lot more public (and media) attention for women’s hockey than is observed presently. Or for hockey in general.

It has to be acknowledged that popularity of a certain sport over another is influenced by a labyrinth of cultural factors. When it comes to commanding fanatical interest in a sport, the opportune communion between successes – at the team as well the individual level – in the international arena and nationalist sentiments goes a long way. After all, the contribution of India’s World Cup win in 1983 towards religionising cricket and the World Twenty20 triumph in 2007 towards transforming the shortest format into a cash cow cannot be undermined. Similarly, an otherwise forgotten sport gains limelight from the occasional accolade in a sporting event of global significance.

While conceding that the glory of the early days of Indian hockey – more particularly, men’s hockey – has entered the annals of ‘once upon a time’, it is the only team sport to feature in the Olympics where our national teams have more or less stayed in or around the top bracket of world ranking leaderboards. The recent years have seen Indian hockey in a steady ascendance. Even before the women’s World Cup was underway, how can we explain the seduction of our eyeballs away from the FIH Men’s Champions Trophy (a highly competitive premier tournament where India finished runners-up for the second time in succession) onto the FIFA World Cup?

Football’s sobriquet of ‘the beautiful game’ suggests volumes on the role aesthetics play in its pervasive reach all around the world. From the viewers’ perspective, the simplicity of following the gameplay has acutely informed the pleasures of watching football – one has to simply stay with the ball. Hockey, its cousin with a stick, follows the same core principles for deriving aesthetic value. Despite similarities of form between the two sports, the number of nations playing competitive hockey of true international standard is a small fraction of that in football. In the eyes of the couch potato variant of sports enthusiasts, the contrast may well be attributed to the challenges of covering hockey games for television screens.

The relative inconspicuousness of the hockey ball defines the central issue for the broadcaster in allocating motion capturing equipment from optimal vantage points. While the rapidly moving ball as it is shot from stick to stick often runs the risk of evading detection, especially when it is shadowed in dribbling scuffles, a graver problem lies in capturing the live footage at the business end – the ‘D’ or penalty area. This is where action gets the most frantic, and where the camera consistently fails to ‘stay with the ball’ by not zooming in as soon as live play enters the ‘D’. It leaves the anxious viewer guessing the fate of the play for a substantial length of time. This also denies him the vicarious agency through the image of the player in act at the most impactful of moments, the pinnacle of which is represented by the live experience of the goal-scoring instant, which no number of slow-motion close-up replays can make up for. The use of Skycam may be an option worth pursuing in this respect.

The aesthetic component in sports broadcasting may serve to offer insight into the differences in popularity among many cognate sports. Lawn tennis, for example, is more viewer-friendly, than other racquet sports like table tennis and squash. One hopes that technology, in staying alive to such challenges, continues to evolve and do justice in portraying the essential beauty in different forms of sport, and thus preserve the diversity in the realms of play.

Ratul Das is an assistant professor at Heritage Law College, Kolkata.