In the last 23 years, since the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Indian hockey has taken us all on a rollercoaster ride, often making fools out of pundits and pundits out of fools. Yet, despite the many ups and downs, the very core of the sport in which this country once ruled the world has remained unshaken. Hockey in India has shown itself to be a great survivor. The sport has weathered the worst of administrators, coaches, virtual penury, media apathy and a system that is all but invisible, if not totally non-existent. Also, in a country which lends an overwhelming patronage to cricket, hockey has endured the image of being a poor cousin, in a manner that is more than just figurative. The fact is, hockey, jokingly referred to as the national sport, has roots as deep as cricket itself, a tradition as strong, a record far more glorious, a talent base as big. This country has consistently been among the top six in the world. If today, stones are being cast at cricket for being the strangler of other sports in India, such accusations only reflect ignorance and blind jealousy for a sport that is far better governed, dressed up and marketed.
The Indian cricket board, for all the good reasons it can be cavilled at, capitalised on the 1983 World Cup triumph and, 20 years hence, is reaping the rewards. In sharp contrast, the country’s hockey administrators, in the wake of a huge haul of Olympic medals, went into deep slumber and turned complacent, insulating themselves from the rapid development and evolution of the sport globally, in terms of playing surface, rules, scientific training methods and professionalism. Yet, if Indian hockey continues to strike an emotional chord and consistently surprise us with stunning results, it is a tribute to the players who have shown the resilience and strength of character to rise and shine, though for a pittance in terms of rewards and recognition. The twin successes in Australia and Hamburg in recent weeks, the "emotional commitment" of the high-profile Sahara Group, and the unprecedented media hype has reinjected vibrancy into Indian hockey. But to really appreciate the significance of this dramatic upswing, we need to cast a look at the past.
As far back as in 1968, the warning bells were ringing following the team’s failure to get to the final at the Mexico Olympics, the first shock since its debut in the 1928 Games. But a third spot at the 1971 World Cup, a second in the 1973 edition followed by the trophy itself two years later, made the administrators more smug, believing that all was hunky-dory with Indian hockey. At that time, when cricket following was restricted to newspapers and the good old All India Radio, hockey had the opportunity to dust itself and get going. Yet, the officials were far too busy jostling for power and position. Somebody of M.A.M. Ramaswamy’s stature made two attempts to infuse a sense of decorum before he quit in disgust. Thereafter, the likes of Inder Mohan Mahajan, Raghunandan Prasad (former Indian Airlines chief) and Kishen Lal Passi contributed little to the development of the game. The functioning of the Indian Hockey Federation often drew sharp criticism from its parent body, the International Hockey Federation (FIH), which once even threatened to disaffiliate India. Coaches were hired and fired, as also the players, at the drop of a hat. The 1985 Asia Cup final fiasco that led to the suspension of half a dozen players virtually sounded the death-knell for Indian hockey. In 1986, India touched the nadir when it finished 12th and last at the Willesden World Cup in London. The slide continued, and India, in 1991, found itself on the edge of the precipice.
At the Auckland qualifiers, India was on the verge of being denied a spot at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. But the Malaysians played the game of their lives to beat Belgium and helped India qualify. It was a compliment that was returned years later in Barcelona when several senior Indian players, with full knowledge of their officials, connived to play a pre-arranged draw with Malaysia to get them into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics! The match-fixing incident almost undid Indian hockey, and yet, as in the past, it survived the crisis. The gold at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games after a lapse of 32 years showed talent was in plenty. But, true to tradition, the IHF bungled again by sacking the very players who had brought home the gold. Meanwhile, at the lower level, India continued to enjoy much success with their age-group teams faring well, including a second place in the 1997 Junior World Cup followed by top honours four years later in Hobart. The IHF needs to be complimented for arranging regular exposure tours. Last year, India went to Kuala Lumpur as the "sentimental favourites" to win the 2002 World Cup. But things turned sour when coach Cedric D’Souza was replaced midway through the tournament after a few bad games, another casualty of groupism in the team.
Says Vasudevan Bhaskaran, captain of the 1980 Moscow Olympics side, who has coached both the senior and junior Indian teams: "I have always held the view that there is plenty of talent in India, and the IHF needs to harness the potential. Also, with a proper long-term development plan, starting from the grassroots, there is no reason why Indian hockey cannot reclaim its position at the top. Despite the many sufferings due to lack of planning, bad administration and whatever, we have always remained in the top six consistently. I would give all credit to the players and certainly not the administrators." IHF secretary-general K. Jothikumaran, fortified by the recent successes of the national teams, both senior and junior, and of course, by the tie-up with Sahara Group, says: "Yes, Indian hockey is definitely looking up. Since K.P.S. Gill took over as the president, and I as the secretary-general in 1994, we have been quietly working to improve matters, without much publicity. Our concern has always been for the players. In the past, they were never rewarded for good performances. However, our administration has ensured that players are financially compensated. For instance, last year, each player received Rs 1 lakh after the Busan Asian Games. Now that we have tied up with the Sahara Group, they can expect incentives and financial rewards."
The Sahara Group intends to fully leverage its association with Indian hockey and in the pipeline are marketing promos in a bid to give the game a "facelift" and try to bring it on par with the cricket team which, too, incidentally, it supports. "We have deliberately not divulged the exact figures because Subrata Roy, the Sahara chief, said the support is born out of emotion and the whole thing is not merely a marketing exercise for Sahara Group. But I feel our players will benefit a great deal by Sahara’s involvement and we also have plans to launch the National Hockey League (NHL) with participation of foreign players, besides other projects like floodlighting of grounds around the country. All this will take some time, but it will happen," says Jothikumaran.