Indian hockey is dead. So say the press, ex-players and the outraged populace. The reason: India has failed, for the first time in 80 years, to qualify for the Olympics –an event where it has won 8 gold medals before.
After all the chest-flailing and the universal condemnation of the incompetence and arrogance of the IHF has run its course, it’s time for some introspection and some perspective.
Here’s the deal.
Not qualifying for the Olympics in itself is hardly the end of the world.
Even major soccer nations like England and France occasionally fail to make the cut for the World Cup —that does not necessarily mean that the sport is dead or in danger of becoming irrelevant in their countries. And it takes just a few strong sporting performances to wipe out such catastrophes from public memory—looking at the euphoric state of Indian cricket today, one would hardly remember that just about a year ago, we were scraping the bottom of the barrel and all of us, present company included, were wringing our hands in desperate anguish.
One thing to note. In both European soccer and Indian cricket, even when the days are the darkest, passion for the game never dries out. Sure the fans get frustrated, abusive and “thoda emotional”. However their sense of engagement with the sport never goes away, much as people would like to claim otherwise.
Hockey however is different. It is not so much India’s failure to make it to the Olympics that is alarming but the fact that, barring a few exceptions, most people have lost serious interest in the fate of Indian hockey.
Indians overall just do not care.
“Whoa whoa” you say. “Hold on. Lack of passion for hockey? Speak for yourself. No-one has lost interest in hockey, everybody is behind the national team.” However this kind of “support” for hockey is frequently in the same vein as our support for “art cinema” or “classical literature” —we know it’s good for us and we know we should and we do claim we do but ultimately it’s not something that we would wake up at 3 am in the night for.
Advertisers know this. So do administrators. And yet the charade of “the national game” and the supposed emotional connect continues.
Here’s a test. Ask the man in the street if he cares for hockey. The odds are he will say “Chak De India, of course”. Ask him to name 5 players who played in 2007 Asian Cup (which we won) and you will see him stuttering. Ask him for all the cricketers who played in the 2007 cricket World Cup (where we were eliminated first round) and he will even spell their names backwards for you.
Cricket. The big evil python that has supposedly sucked out all the resources from hockey and other sports. Any discussion about the declining standards of Indian hockey inevitably brings up the issue of cricket and India’s obsession with it to the exclusion of everything else. Ask any hockey player or administrator and cricket somehow is always the villain — all those cricket stars get all the money and the attention and we get nothing.
I personally do not see it that way. Cricket, just like hockey, started in the same state of abject penury. [Rajdeep Sardesai recounts how once when the Indian cricket team under Bedi won a Test against New Zealand in four days, the board refused to give them their daily allowance, meager as it was, for the fifth day instead admonishing them with a “Who told you to finish the game in four days?”.] Except that hockey has remained that way whereas cricket has taken off, on its own strength. Not through government fiat, not through a 49.5% quota or a 15% subsidy but by its ability to create a market for itself.
Was cricket’s ascension largely a matter of luck? Perhaps. Indian cricket took off at a time when the Indian television industry was undergoing a revolution. A period of time that coincided with a nose-dive in India’s hockey standards caused by the wide-spread use of artificial surfaces and the emergence of a more physical, faster paradigm of hockey to which India just could not adapt to. There was of course mismanagement, politics and corruption but even cricket has hardly been free from that. The only thing is that in recent years with cricket continuously being under media scrutiny, administrators have been forced to keep their misdemeanors under some amount of control whereas the powers that be in hockey have had a free run with arbitrary chops and changes, blatant politicking, heavy handedness and of course corruption.
The larger issue however is not cricket vs hockey. There is no reason why,with India’s huge sports-hungry population, it cannot be cricket and hockey, just like the NFL, the NBA and baseball co-exist in the US and everyone makes money. It’s not also not the case that there has been absolutely no investment in our national game— there is the Premier Hockey League and its support from ESPN India and a winning pot of 4 million rupees in 2008.
But has it generated even a fraction of the hype and discussion that even an unofficial tournament like the ICL Twenty20 has?
Based on the press coverage and buzz that the PHL gets , I doubt it.
Speaking for myself, I do not follow PHL. Just as I no longer follow India’s international engagements in hockey.
I once did however. Passionately. I remember our entire family getting up at the dead of night watching India play at the Olympics, feeling the same sense of connection that I felt for cricket. Mohammed Shahid was the one I always rooted for though my favorites were the Pakistani greats—Tahir Zaman and Shahbaz Ahmed. An India-Pakistan hockey match had the exact same intensity as a cricket match and I recall hard fought hockey “test matches” which were keenly followed by people. Negi’s goalkeeping or more precisely how pathetic it supposedly was, was dinner time conversation argued with the same passion that people would now discuss the merits of Ganguly being dropped.
In my high school physical education curriculum, we had to select one game among cricket, football and hockey and learn its basic skills– skills that would be examined during the Board exams.
I chose hockey.
It was somewhere in the very early 90s that I, along with my peers, first started losing interest in hockey. Though I would struggle to put an exact reason for it, I would say that it was largely due to the sinking realization that India were ages behind the standards of hockey that had been set by Australia, Germany, Netherlands and yes even Pakistan (which was by no means a “rich” country) with regards to speed, ball possession and penalty corner conversions. Even when India put in a fighting performance against a top team, it would then disappoint with an abysmal day against an Argentina or an England. Most of the time, we were fighting to be seventh or eighth. Soon that became eleventh or twelfth. Sure there were isolated victories but the downward trend was irreversible.
Somewhere down the road, I just switched off. And I was not the only one.
Coming back to India’s Olympic debacle, if there is one positive thing to it it is the fact that hockey has got at least some press coverage. Perhaps some people still do care. And looking at it in a dispassionate way, finishing seventh or eighth in the Olympics (which realistically was what was going to happen even in the best of cases) is not much better than not qualifying. If the current situation brings about a shake-up in the administration (the current administration’s handling of Rick Charlesworth as technical advisor has been criminal) with the immediate removal of the arrogant Gill (who thinks 15 years at the helm is a short time to make changes) then some good would have been served. Having replaced 150 players and 10 coaches in his first 10 years as India’s hockey supremo and in general running the IHF as his jagirdaari with no dissenting voice tolerated, it is undeniable that Gill has been a quite a disaster.
Having said that,the problem with Indian hockey is much more deep-rooted than one that can be merely solved with an administrative shake-up. I am also pessimistic about Aslam Sher Khan‘s “If the Government of India can spent about Rs 500 crore and provide the infrastructure, then in the next four years, we will be at the top once again” remedy simply because there are far more pressing demands on the nation’s purse than hockey.
The only long-term solution to India’s problems in hockey has to come from the market. In other words—us. Do we really, deep down, still care for hockey? Are a significant number of us going to tune in to a hockey game and watch it even if there is a Twenty20 IPL brouhaha on? Okay forget that. Are a significant number of us going to tune in to a hockey game even when there is nothing on in any of the channels?
If the honest answer to this is no, well then the spirit of Indian hockey may already have moved on from its body.