Boria Majumdar has written how slowly and silently hockey, our national game, is dying.
It was 3.30 a.m. on Monday and India was playing a crucial hockey match in the Olympic qualifiers at Chile. A loss meant a no-show at the Olympic Games for the first time in 80 years. Yet no Indian news channel offered a live update. There was no breaking news flash when Great Britain scored. Dedicated hockey portals too failed to provide live match updates. It was an hour after the match ended that news of India crashing out was updated. In contrast, when India played Sri Lanka at Hobart in the cricket tri-series just weeks ago — the match started early morning here — all channels were ready with ball-by-ball updates of what was an inconsequential contest. The period between 1980 and 2008, which saw cricket becoming India’s leading national obsession, also witnessed the slide of hockey from its position of grace. Every major cricketing achievement has followed a hockey disaster, making the choice for the public and the media fairly simple. The 1983 cricket World Cup triumph followed India’s disastrous 1-7 defeat in hockey to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games. The failure to make the semifinals at the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 was followed by the 1985 Benson and Hedges win in Australia. Again, India reaching the cricket World Cup final in 2003 and the away series win in Pakistan was followed by another seventh place showing in hockey at the Athens Olympics. With hockey players earning Rs 1,200 a day in comparison to the Rs 1.6 lakh earned by cricketers for each one-day international, it was only a matter of time before Indian hockey reached its nadir. With tournaments like the IPL and ICL making sure that first class cricketers, even if they don’t don India colours, will retire as crorepatis, hockey stands little chance. In the absence of money and fame, youngsters obviously won’t take to hockey. All sports, other than cricket, stand to die a slow death unless performance at the international stage improves dramatically. Only then will the media wake up, in turn attracting sponsors who stand to make the biggest difference. The series of poor performances at the international stage has damaged the very edifice of Indian hockey. So much so that school and college tournaments, which saw a fair degree of student participation till a decade back, aren’t even held these days. The number of spectators at the Brighton Cup, the oldest hockey tournament in the country, has come down to single digits and even Olympic qualifiers don’t inspire advertisers to buy slots on TV. The situation was exactly the opposite half a century ago. When India won her first-ever cricket Test match defeating the English at Chepauk in 1952, celebrations were muted. In contrast, when the 1952 Olympic gold medal winning hockey team returned home, fans greeted the victorious players in a manner comparable to the reception accorded to M S Dhoni and his men after their Twenty20 World Cup victory. On arriving home in India in 1952, the hockey team was given a royal reception in the capital. At the official function in Delhi, the Olympic team played a match against a Rest of India XI in a packed stadium. Present among the audience was President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Balbir Singh recalled, “The train in which we travelled was literally mobbed by enthusiastic hockey fans. People surged around our compartment and waited for our darshan. When we emerged from the train, they almost crushed us with bear hugs and shows of affection”. Such show of passion for hockey appears inconceivable in the near future. The Indian Hockey Federation has once again exposed its ineptness following the debacle at Chile. IHF chief K P S Gill, who has headed the hockey federation for years, has refused to take the blame and rejected calls to resign. While the government is in no position to interfere in view of checks imposed by the International Olympic Committee charter, it is time the Indian Olympic Association takes up cudgels for hockey. Otherwise there is little hope for the nation’s most illustrious Olympic sport.