Indian Field Hockey: From Dhyan to the Lack of It



Indian field hockey has been in its current shambolic state for so long, that it is hard to imagine that we were once world beaters. From the times of Roop Singh to Balbir Singh Sr. to Mir Ranjan Negi, hockey was India’s pride. Just like Australia has produced the world’s greatest cricketer, India has produced the world’s greatest field hockey players. Between 1928 and 1980, India won eight gold medals in the Olympics in field hockey with six of them consecutively between 1928 and 1956. After that, there hasn’t even been a podium finish. Things reached their nadir when the world’s most celebrated field hockey nation failed to qualify for the sport in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The reason for hockey’s demise in India can be apportioned equally to administration or the lack of it, and its decline in popularity; although which comes first is moot.

Like any other successful venture, a sport needs constant care and attention. It needs to be nurtured and kept in the best possible health at all times. This duty falls on both the administration and the players. The administration makes sure that the players have access to the latest and the best of everything, that there are no logistical hurdles. The players make sure that they make the best use of what is provided to them, thereby translating the efforts of the administration into tangible outcomes that are specific and measurable. One generally follows the other and both have to work in tandem for success to be achieved. Ever since 1980, where India won the Olympics hockey gold for the last time (not on merit, but because other great hockey plating nations refused to participate on political grounds), Indian hockey has barely managed to stay afloat at the world level in terms of both administrative clout and on filed performances. Unsurprisingly, the reasons for this are typically Indian.

Hockey was historically played on grass fields. Therefore, boys from Punjab, Goa, and Kerala, to name a few states, were ever so good at it. This is where they developed their talent and honed their skills. On grass individual skill takes precedence over team play. It was precisely because of this reason, Indian forwards could single handedly take on entire defences and beat them with their excellent dribbling skills and artistic stick work. When hockey was included in the Olympics it was played on grass fields. Naturally, India was successful and this success translated into an overwhelming haul of medals. Their first real challenge came in the 1948 London Olympics when a newly partitioned India fielded a team of players, none of whom had prior Olympics experience. But, in symbolic fashion India thumped Great Britain in the finals in front of the Royal family. The world took note of India’s prowess at hockey. From 1948 to 1972, India and the upcoming Pakistan dominated hockey at the world stage because both had similar kind of players who were good on grass surfaces. Other teams tried adapting to the Indian style of play, but to no avail. It was sheer brilliance that made India a success story. No matter how hard others tried, their diligence and industry was no answer to India’s natural flair. This team sport was heavily reliant on individual skill and performance, and it was here that India outclassed all others. It was then that the international governing body for hockey decided to create a level playing field.

Surface Tension

On astro turf, Indian players were not as good as the players from other top teams. Image Source - DNA India

On astro turf, Indian players were not as good as the players from other top teams. Image Source – DNA India

In the 1976 Montreal Olympics artificial or astroturf as a playing surface was introduced for the first time; it is now compulsory for all international events. The reason attributed to this change, at the time, was the weather conditions prevailing in Montreal. It was rainy, and hence, it would be difficult to complete matches on the grass surface in a time bound manner. The difference was that the skill set which made India the world number one was not as important on astroturfs as it was on grass. The bounce on such a surface was truer, and it was easier to anticipate the movement of the opposition player. Sliding in to defend became suicidal, something which could be done very easily on grass. Dribbling, trapping the ball and feinting gave way to stamina, speed and strength. Delicate movement gave way to powerful runs. Artistry gave way to physicality. Suddenly, the advantages that Indians had were not called into play so often. Infact, their disadvantages were glaringly exposed when they found out that they were no match for their European counterparts when it came to stamina and fitness. The old game relied on talent. The new game relied on hard work. India found itself in an unchartered territory.

It is but natural for a sport to undergo such alterations and modifications. True victory lies in adapting to such changes and coming out on top despite such handicaps. This is where India failed, or to be more exact, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) failed India. Instead of preempting the impact of the playing surface, the administrators sat back and watched the team pile up the losses. They simply refused to acknowledge the change in the international style of play. Instead of focusing on strategies to counter this change they tried resisting it for as long as possible. It was perhaps because of this reason that the first astroturf was introduced in India in the year 1982, almost six years after it was internationally mandated. Pakistan got theirs in 1978. Astroturfs are expensive to set up. One cannot, therefore, expect these turfs to be available at every hockey ground in India, especially in the tier two cities which are considered to be the hotbeds of hockey. “Hockey players in India play on astroturf for the first time at the age of 19 or 20 and find it hard to adapt,” says Sardara Singh one of India’s current hockey players.

However, if it were true that a surface could make such a difference, then how would one explain tennis which takes place on three different surfaces having the same players who are always in the top bracket on all the three surfaces. The surface was a symptom of a malaise much more chronic. India was both physically and mentally under prepared at world events. The number of tournaments that were played suddenly became more and this increase in the number of games demanded tremendous levels of fitness from the players. Indians shied away from the rigorous training regime that was demanded of them. Instead of bringing in new and specialized methods of training and player management, India still relied on archaic methods of coaching and training. Their Western counterparts paid attention to every facet of the game right down to the diet of the players. India, unfortunately, could not match up to their exacting standards. This reflected in their on-field performance. Another major factor was the scouting system that had served them so well for so many years also failed to reinvent itself. They were still looking for players as though it was 1950. Instead of looking for intelligent players with a vision, and those who were strong and well built, they were still focusing on slick dribblers. Therefore, when these players came up through the ranks, they were found wanting in many key aspects of the international game. “Talent is not the issue. You need an eye for it. Both India and Pakistan don’t have good talent spotters. We look at the dribble alone. We don’t look at the intelligence of the player,” rues Tahir Zaman, a former Pakistani player and captain.

Gills Suffocate

Lack of support for even for an Indo-Pak game.

Lack of support for even for an Indo-Pak game.

In 1994, DGP of Punjab K.P.S Gill was elected as the President of the Indian Hockey Federation. Gill was well known for curbing insurgency in Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s. It was expected that he would bring the same discipline and man management tactics to Indian hockey which was in dire need of the same. He started off on a positive note. He made key appointments that would improve the condition of Indian hockey and inspired confidence. It was now time to focus on the more trying problems that ailed the system. Ground level support system, proper infrastructure, competent coaches at all levels, and an attempt to foster harmony and unity. Unfortunately, he mistook IHF to be a police station, with him as the Station House Officer, the executives and coaches as inspectors and sub inspectors, and the players as constables.

Instead of decentralizing governance, which would benefit the system in general for it would allow hockey to penetrate the hitherto unexplored parts of India, he saw to it that nothing would move forward without him having a say in it. He failed to get any kind of a long term strategy in place which would survive his tenure. Until now, children who aspired to be a sportsperson, had been traditionally gravitating towards hockey because of the glorious history associated with it and the plethora of iconic players to emulate. But, for the next generation of youth, the past glory of hockey was not appealing enough and federation failed to put in place grass root development programs to maintain the sport’s appeal. School and college level, national and state level competitions for identifying talent were now being held perfunctorily. Every aspect of the game right from coaching to umpiring was found wanting. As a result, interest waned. Those cities that promoted hockey aggressively did not find any support from the federation, and turned to other sports.

Even national level players and coaches were not spared. There was no security of tenure for coaches, and the criterion for selecting players was everything but performance. Case in point being that of Cedric D’souza’s, who was sacked as the Indian Coach in March 2002 mid–way through the World Cup. M.K. Kaushik, having coached the team to a gold medal in the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, was asked to leave because he stood by the team when they asked for bonuses. Goalkeeper Ashish Ballal was thrown out of the team for giving an interview to Outlook magazine in which Ballal said, “Everybody is talking about our prospects—that we will return with the gold. I think it is a big joke because we do not even have a kit. The Indian Hockey Federation is run by a drunkard and a clerk.” By the middle of the 2000s, corruption was rampant in the federation; and in 2008, IHF’s secretary K. Jothikumaran was suspended after being found to have taken money to induct payers into the junior side. KPS Gill too lost his position. India failed to qualify for the Olympics and all KPS Gill had to say was, “We give too much importance to the Olympics.” Subsequently, IHF was de-recognised by the International Hockey Federation, and Hockey India (HI) was formed to take up its responsibilities. Many states did not recognize the authority of HI. No one knew who was in charge of Indian hockey. It was tragically comical the way hockey was being handled. Then IHF and HI entered into a merger agreement in 2011, and currently there is temporary peace.

Enter Cricket, Exit Hockey

Hockey at the moment has no answer to cricket's popularity.

Hockey at the moment has no answer to cricket’s popularity.

The purpose of a sport is larger than serving the body of administrators and players who are associated with it. Inherent in every sport are vibes of nationalism and popular sentiment. An entire country celebrates or mourns the outcome of a particular sporting event. For a country to be able to do that, the sport should be in popular thought, and should be viewed by citizens. For a sport to be in popular thought and be viewed by citizens, a country must do well or well enough in the sport. In the last twenty five to thirty years, the most common mode of sports viewing has been the television. Until 1982, Indians had not seen any sport on television, but only heard its commentary on radio. Therefore, it was cruel irony that the first time majority of the Indians saw their hockey team play live, it was in the 1 – 7 drubbing on the hands of Pakistan in the finals of the 1982 Asian Games. By this time Indian hockey was way past its prime. The damage that this match did to the status of hockey in India was irreparable. People didn’t care about past glory. They saw India perform poorly and majority of them failed to understand the reason for the popularity of a sport in which India was humiliated. They were unable to associate with the sport. Adding to misery of hockey, the administrators could not care less, and now the fans were slowly inching away, it became difficult to revive popular interest.

Then in 1983, India unexpectedly won the Cricket World Cup, live on television, for millions of Indians to witness their victory. Suddenly, India had found a new sport to rally behind. Up until the 1980s, cricket wasn’t India’s first sport. It was popular, but not comparable to hockey. It was generally limited to the metros and usually played by persons of means. Yet from the 1980s onwards, cricket assumed centre stage. ‘Cricket’s emergence as the new Indian ‘national’ game,’ writes Boria Majumdar, an eminent sports journalist, ‘does not necessarily stem from some peculiar Indian affiliation for the game but is inextricably linked to the expansion of Indian television and a confluence of factors that came together: the creation of a large middle class, the economic reforms, the birth of the satellite television industry and a whole gamut of forces that fall under the broad rubric of globalisation. This emergence also marks the sunset for the nation’s Olympic sports.’ In simple words, the ability of the administrators to adapt to television, and foresee the forces of globalisation which would become significant in the future is what made cricket successful. The inability to do the same cost sports like hockey and football. By the time the administrators realised their folly, the train had left the platform. As cricket rose, hockey declined. As more and more households had access to television, hockey declined. As an entire generation of adolescent Indians decided which outdoor sport should they play, hockey declined. The World Cup victory was followed by the World Championship victory in 1985. This firmly established cricket as India’s leading sport. After this, there was no looking back.

Recent attempts have been made to revive hockey through the Indian Hockey League (IHL), styled along the premise of the Indian Premier League (IPL). But, it is nowhere close to the IPL in popularity. And hockey’s greatest curse is its Olympic burden, its failure to live up to the demands of history. These weigh heavily on the minds of every player who wears the Indian jersey today. Yet, it is this history that should be called upon in these times of despair and hopelessness. After all half the battle is fought in the mind, with one’s self.

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