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Indian Hockey: A ray of hope or another false dawn?

Pradyumna D S
ANALYST
Modified 28 Aug 2014
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Revival of Indian hockey

The Indian hockey team secured silver medal at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games, and the team's performance delighted everyone. The main question though is: will Indian hockey build from this win and achieve greater heights? Or is this win just another false dawn? Most signs point to the latter.

The fall of the mighty Indian hockey empire has been slow but sure. For the best part of the last 40 years, with each passing tournament, it has become more and more clear that the quality is just not there and that the heydays of India dominating the hockey scene are a thing of the distant past.

1936 Indian hockey team

To those of the younger generation who are not aware about Indian hockey's golden days, here is a small recap. India was both the David and Goliath of hockey between 1928 and 1980. We dominated hockey during that time, winning eight gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze medals at the Olympics. We were also the world champions once. Players like Dhyan Chand, Balbir Singh Sr, Ajit Pal Singh, Leslie Claudius, etc. played an important role in cementing India as an all-conquering force in hockey, and they are duly regarded as legends of the game.

The reasons for such a drastic drop in standards are many, as claimed by experts and former players. I aim to take a brief look at the main reasons attributed to Indian hockey's fall from grace, and also provide a way to correct them and get our mojo back.

1. Astroturf:

Since a long time, Astroturf has been branded as the main villain by many hockey players and administrators. It has been cited as one of the primary reasons for the Indian hockey team’s dismal performances.

Whether Astroturf really has made such a negative impact, we can’t know for sure. Astroturf was introduced in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and that coincided with the start of India's disappointing showing. We have not secured a medal at the Olympics since 1980. The Astroturf story is similar to Indian cricket team's troubles overseas owing to playing all their cricket on slow turners at home which are quite different to the bouncy pitches overseas. They struggle to adapt. It’s a similar story with the Indian hockey team.

On the contrary, many Indian hockey legends have also claimed that Astroturf should actually work in Indian hockey's favour, whose strengths lie in dribbling, ball control and passing. They feel it should aid our style and allow our game to flourish over the Europeans.

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If adaptability was the issue, the number of Astroturf grounds in India could be counted on your hands, and that hardly helps. The ideal scenario would be for players to start training on the Astroturf from a very early age so that the adaptability question doesn't come into the picture.

2. Association trouble:

For almost three years between 2008 to 2011, the power struggle between the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and Hockey India (HI) resembled two teens fighting for the same girl. IHF had been the game's governing body since 1928, but its recognition was taken away by the International Federation following corruption charges in 2008. That was when Hockey India was formed and was subsequently recognized as the official governing body by the Indian Judiciary.

Many attempts were made by the Indian government and also the IHF to get the two bodies to form some kind of understanding. There were talks about a merger as well. But nothing materialized during those years. At a time when the BCCI was taking giant strides in securing the commercial future of cricket and cricketers by introducing the cash rich IPL, hockey India was caught up in this mess. The situation was resolved in 2012, and a merger has been completed with Hockey India now the recognized board.

The governing body plays a pivotal role if India is to make an ascent back to the top of International Hockey.

3. Lack of domestic competitions:

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Rarely do we see a group of kids playing hockey. Enough efforts haven't been made into getting children and youth playing hockey. One of the main reasons is the lack of tournaments at the youth level like the Under 15, Under 19 etc akin to cricket. Getting hockey into schools is paramount. 6-a-side hockey indoors should be a fun way to get kids started off with hockey. It will help develop their ball control and trapping in tight spaces as well and they would enjoy it. There are ways and means to do it if only the effort was there.

For the senior hockey players as well, apart from the Indian Hockey League there are no other good tournaments which players can play day-in day-out and hone their skills. A three tier league with the top domestic teams playing the top tier and so on would seem a good approach.  

4. Lack of Long term planning:

Chopping and changing coaches after every debacle is just a smokescreen, a way for the governing body to show that they are actually doing something other than involving in petty politics. The change of coaches means a change of tactics and strategies, change in selection policy, change in the support staff etc. What it mainly does though, is that it gives the incoming coach no long term guarantee to implement his plans and achieve results. Because of that perceived lack of job security, he just looks for short term strategies to win. All this has quite a negative effect on the whole hockey setup.

Agreed, the results have not been positive enough to retain one coach for too long. But its paramount we pick a coach, give him the necessary powers and resources, chalk out a 4 year plan and give him full backing during his tenure to take whatever decisions he wants to, pertaining to the team. Hopefully, that happens with the current coach Terry Walsh.

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The same long term strategy goes with players. We cannot have fresh faces representing us every tournament with no top quality experience.  If we take a look at the players representing Germany, Holland et al, there always seems to be a master plan. Certain top players playing the big tournaments like the Olympics. Younger and inexperienced ones for other lower priority tournaments. Something similar to their strategy is necessary. Identify a core group of players, give them 3 years worth of experience playing top level hockey so that when they go to the Olympics, they are well prepared.

5. Lack of funding and sponsors:

This rot stems right from the Indian government to the private investors. Hockey India recently threatened to pull out of CWG 2014 owing to lack of funds. It doesn't speak well of Indian hockey that the game's main governing body doesn't get enough funds. There is not much incentive for players either. The rewards they get upon winning tournaments is peanuts compared to their more illustrious cricketing counterparts. Now, I don't want to get into the Hockey- Cricket debate, but BCCI has been successful in making cricket a financially viable and profitable sport for players at all levels. The same cannot be said about hockey.

Hockey India needs to pull out their marketing nous and try rope in funds and sponsors so that players are better rewarded for their efforts.

6. Role Models:

We only need to look as far as Pullela Gopichand-Prakash Padukone, Vishwanathan Anand and Sachin Tendulkar to see the immensely positive effect that legends of a game can have on the new generation of players. They can single-handedly inspire the next generation to take up the sport. Gopichand's mere presence in his coaching academy has inspired players to achieve greater heights.

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Dhanraj Pillay

There is no shortage of legends in Indian hockey. It's just sad that someone like a Dhanraj Pillay has not come forward to offer his wealth of experience to young players. It would do wonders to Indian Hockey if that happened. The veterans could play a more advisory sort of role.

It's saddening seeing the state of Indian hockey, considering our glorious past. But all we have is hope, hope that the men who matter can finally get their act together and take steps to arrest this decline. Hope, that the recent CWG performance was more than just a one off and will usher in better times for Indian Hockey. 

Published 23 Aug 2014, 12:23 IST
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