From the heart of New Delhi begins the road to redemption for Indian hockey. Four years ago, in a far corner of the globe in Chile, the game hit its lowest ebb. For the first time in over eight decades, the men’s team failed to book their tickets to the Olympics. Hockey, the lone flag bearer of Indian sporting achievement on the world’s grandest stage, was to feel the absence of the tricolor at Beijing in 2008. For a sport that has been in a free fall for the last few decades, missing out on the biggest sporting event on the earth was a body blow from which it was never going to be easy to recover. Indian hockey had fluffed its lines and the theatre would not open for another four years.
In the India of today, hockey is akin to the public sector undertaking that was the center of attention during the days of license raj but has now been run under and is surviving solely on government grants. An uncle of mine, who played the game at college level, wistfully recalls one of his college teammates and an ex-India player in the early 1980s suggesting him not to let his son take up the game. Make him play cricket, said that friend, for that is where the attention and the money would be. Uttered before the 1983 World Cup changed the fortunes of cricket in India, those words today sound tragic.
It would need a separate article to explain what ails Indian hockey at present. For now we can condense everything into two words – bad administration. The running soap opera of hockey governance has seen multiple federations, monetary mismanagement, botched organization, autocratic officials, nepotism and unprofessionalism. The complete lack of vision amongst those who have presided over hockey’s demise post Independence has resulted in the game being stuck in a time warp in the country. Hockey is vanishing from India’s schools, there are not enough artificial turfs to breed a new generation of players and those who don the Indian colors are made to feel that the officials are granting them a favor rather than it being the other way around.
The eight Olympic gold medals are now only a statistic. Their pride and more importantly their legacy have been withered away by the continuing disappointments since the 1970s. Indian hockey since then has seen many false dawns and experienced in their wake many a depressing night. Victories have eluded us at the international stage. Success at the Asian level has been squandered. Teams and players have emerged only to be scattered. Hockey is the one Indian sport where the officials are scared of the players becoming ‘stars’ and thus commanding a say in the sport. World over, player popularity drives the uptake of any sport. In Indian hockey the player must be suppressed for the administrator always fears that a coup is around the corner.
Being a hockey fan can be depressing hazard. There are tiny joys and gargantuan agonies. The fan still searches for the magic, that wizardry of stick work, that dash down the line and the cross down the center. At the aptly named, Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in Delhi, as the Indian team charts is path to the London Olympics, fans have slowly trickled in, tentatively placing their faith back in the Indian boys. Watching from the stands, I was not surprised to see that despite the organizational haphazardness and insensitive ticket pricing, the faithful came in. As the breezy nights drifted over Delhi and the Indian men came out to play, even on weekdays, the crowds came to cheer them on. When they took on the relatively stronger teams like Poland and Canada, there was plenty of tricolor in the stands, young sardarjis wearing Sandeep Singh jerseys, families with little children seeing the game live for the first time. They roared as the Indians attacked, groaned in despair as possession was given away to the opposition, raised slogans to cheer the team, waved the tricolor passionately when a goal was scored and sang the national anthem with pride before the games began.
The path to the Olympics is not guaranteed yet – at the time of writing, both the men and the women needed to win their final games to proceed to London. But for a sport that has been set back by so many years in this country, progress can only be made in baby steps. The Indian men are ranked 12th in the world. On the face of it, that is not a bad number. In terms of internationally competitive teams however, that rank comes pretty much towards the bottom. The Olympic qualifiers themselves are being played under the shadow of an unsanctioned professional league where the promise of good money has brought many of those who have been overlooked to play for India; there are rumblings of how the players have not been paid over the last year and two parallel federations are fighting in court as to which is the legitimate one.
Beneath all of this byzantine intrigue tugs the romance of yesteryears at the heart of the fan. Hockey has been on life support for long in India and it is the hope of the fan and the doggedness of the player that has kept the game alive. Now though it must stand up on its own legs. For a sport that is perhaps one of the fastest in the world and takes less time than a T20 game of cricket, the time has come when the achievements on the park and not the prayers of the fan act as the life blood. The chorus of Indian hockey, that struck such magnificent chords many decades ago, faded as the source of excellence kept getting distant. Now, the voices must join and the chorus should swell again. The television campaign says ‘Phir dil do hockey ko’ – the ‘dil’ is very much there, but the sport must rise up to the demands of that love. Reaching London will not rid Indian hockey of its ills, but it would turn its face towards the road that is paved with improvement and progress. It is an eight hour journey to London by air, but in the universe of Indian hockey right now, that trip, if and when it materializes, would be nothing short of a moon landing.