Indian Hockey's conundrum - Will glory return or are we fighting a lost battle?
Few days back, I was watching CNN IBN’s annual Indian of the Year awards ceremony. Lots of dignitaries were being honoured for achievements in their respective fields, but one accolade that stood out was the Lifetime achievement award conferred to the legendary Mr. Balbir Singh Dosanjh – the captain of men’s hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
It was presented by the gold medallists of 1980 Moscow Olympics – the hockey stalwarts who led us to glory in Russia, and we have been waiting for the Olympic glory ever since. Where have we gone wrong?
I remember my early childhood days when my father used to follow hockey with immense passion. I was in my early teens and after Cricket & Tennis, hockey was the only sport which I saw on the tube then. I remember those Indo- Pak encounters where tensions scaled new heights and standards struck exceptional peaks.
Though I didn’t enjoy it much but my dad’s constant commentary from his couch, his anticipation and soaring excitement levels lent a new dimension to the game which aroused my interest.
But my love for this game finally came to the fore when I saw an epic encounter between the arch rivals India and Pakistan during the Champions Trophy in 2003. Despite trailing 4-2 in the first half, India’s stalwarts staged a dramatic comeback and thrashed the neighbors by a margin of 7-4.
The brilliance of iconic Dhanraj Pillay and some stunning finishes by Gagan Ajit Singh (son of former Olympian Ajit Singh) erased the memories of the nailing 7-0 loss we had suffered in finals of Asian Games at the National Hockey Stadium in 1982.
And we followed that up with gold at Asian Games next year. Hockey found a new lease of life. And I found a new sport where emotions knew no limits.
But we could never really capitalise on those sporadic successes here and there and Indian hockey went further down the barrel. And I don’t blame the players for that. There was a golden period when Europe was a fan of our freestyle hockey, there was almost an unbridgeable gap between the two.
Our dribbles on grass were admired across the globe but with the introduction of Astroturf, the reverse happened, poor infrastructure, improper grooming and training resulted in a catastrophe and suddenly we were too far behind the European Nations.
Zero adaptability and improper tactics did not help the matters at all. As a result, we were left wanting. Success eluded us at big stages, which was highlighted by our inability to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The lack of confidence against tougher teams and inability to act in pressure situations were one of the few problems that was there for everyone to see.
The stigma of ineffective organization plagued us completely. The tussle between FIH and HI over the control of the so-called national game or the apathetic IOA and their organizational failures had resulted in a complete neglect of Infrastructure at grass root levels.
Proper grooming of youngsters was never contemplated, be it infusing more money for the game’s development. And the lack of thought for the betterment of the game was evident at the London Olympics in 2012 as well. Though we managed to qualify for the main event unlike the humiliation of 2008, but we finished at the bottom of the heap, our worst show ever.
But events have taken a positive turn, especially after 2012 Olympics. Hockey has been given a new lease of life by the corporate honchos. The introduction of Hockey India League from 2013 has brought competitive hockey to our land. The exposure our young players have got by playing alongside international stars has been brilliant and it has done wonders for their confidence.
To excel at the international level, talent alone does not take you through, it is the attitude and the mental grooming that equally plays its part and HIL has had a significant contribution. New youngsters have come up the ranks and they look extremely promising.
The likes of Kothajit Singh, Mandeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh guided by the likes of Sardar Singh & SV Sunil give a ray of hope to all the die hard hockey fans. Organisation has improved drastically and more investment in hockey is doing wonders for the sport.
The recent performances in the ongoing Champions Trophy in London have been promising. Though there is still work to be done in deep defense but the gap between us and the likes of Australia, Germany, Belgium and other European heavyweights is not that great as it was a decade back.
Being an ardent hockey fan, I hate when we lose, I hate to see the lost hope in my dad’s eyes and that too for a sport he once played with immense glory. And it is the same for many fathers who wanted to teach their children the essence of this beautiful game but its plight never allowed that to happen.
I hope we dish out a spectacular performance in Rio Olympics 2016. Hockey needs our wishes & support and I am ready for it. I expect the same from all of us.