Friday, Jul 01, 2022

God's Plenty

Indian Hockey is, today, run on an annual budget that is a small fraction (barely a tenth) of the cost of Chak De India; small European clubs invest more in the game than this country does

The film Chak De India has emerged as the runaway success of the year, and the credit must certainly go to those who participated in its making. In part, however, that credit must be shared by the sport of field hockey, and the unique place it has in India's imagination. While other, more elitist games, secure much of the support and sponsorship that makes for high profile projection in the media, it is hockey that captures the true spirit of Indian sport. It is here that one finds, to borrow Dryden's words, "God's plenty". At the selection trials for the Under-18 Probables held on August 30 at Gurgaon, for instance, 41 boys were selected from across the country. No other sport in India can boast such diversity.

This has been a tremendous advance over past decades, when sports administrators had converted the National Game into a parochial fiefdom focused on just two or three States, dominated overwhelmingly by Punjab. Today, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), with tremendous support from the Sports Authority of India (SAI), has engineered a tremendous resurgence of hockey, with players from States as far apart as Manipur to Punjab to Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu, coming into the national teams - and, crucially, the national mainstream.

The unifying, binding, power of this game is infinite. Crucially, it inspires and mobilises the very constituencies that have been neglected and forgotten by virtually everyone - certainly everyone in the corridors of power. The boys we selected at Gurgaon included sons of daily labourers, subsistence farmers, tribal foragers, mofussil clerks, petty shopkeepers, some of the poorest of the poor in India. These are people who have, through their childhoods, suffered from nutritional deficiency and from almost every form of deprivation we can imagine, and it is difficult for us to even conceive of the circumstances under which they have learned to play and excel in hockey.

In rural and tribal areas, hockey is most often played without even the most rudimentary facilities, with curved branches used as sticks, an improvised ball, and on any rough ground that is more or less flat - and it is played in these circumstances by children in the numberless thousands, unseen and unsupervised. Hockey - for all the modesty of resources we commit to the promotion of this sport in India - has lifted many of these children out of poverty and anonymity, and has taken them into international arenas where they have held their own against players of the 'First World' - rich, privileged, trained and moulded by the very latest research, techniques and technologies that money can buy.

In the recent Eight-Nation Junior Tournament held in Germany, the Indian team - interestingly, with players drawn from as many as nine States - drove immediately to Holland and played Holland, the eventual winners, in two 'friendlies', one, a day after their arrival, and the second a day later. In the first match the team lost 3-2, in the second, they drew even. I discussed this performance with a number of specialists conversant with the effects of air travel on the body, and they were amazed that the team could play at all, leave alone play so well, immediately so soon after extended travels. Thereafter, they went on to beat Poland, Spain and Germany, three of the top teams in the world. This, by any standards, was an outstanding performance, and one that a particular European observer attributed solely to the 'great advances' in tactics among the European teams.

What few people know is that Indian Hockey is, today, run on an annual budget that is a small fraction (barely a tenth) of the cost of Chak De India; small European clubs invest more in the game than this country does; yet the national team has consistently maintained a position in the world's top eight, and junior and sub-junior teams have lifted many an international trophy.

As many as 31 Indian youngsters are currently in Germany, attached to an array of local clubs, and it is through devices such as these that the IHF manages to give its teams at various levels maximum exposure to the game at international levels, as well as to new techniques and technologies, better standards of living and nutrition, and the personal experience of new worlds and cultures that instil greater personal confidence and create the character and will to engage in contests at the cutting edge of international sports.

There has been much recent talk of adopting the 'Cuban model' for sports development in India. What is not understood in such perspectives is that sports does not exist in a vacuum - you would have to adopt the Cuban model for the country before you can apply it to one system within it, and I doubt if there are many in India who advocate the political and administrative systems that prevail in that country. Cuba, in any event, with a population of 11 million, a single language, and a land mass that could fit into some of India's cities, can hardly serve as any useful model for a country of 1.2 billion, and with the kind of sheer diversity we experience here. Indeed, there are hardly any 'models' in the world that we can simply import and apply to this country, with its unique composition and its extraordinary vulnerabilities.

At the Gurgaon Trials, Jugraj Singh, who was coaching the youngsters in the art of drag-flicking, made a profound remark. He noted that 50 per cent of talent was 'god given', and that 50 per cent was what we had to add. There are literally millions of children across India, particularly in rural areas, who have that 'god given' 50 per cent - and in an overwhelming proportion of cases, this is destroyed by malnutrition (the incidence is actually rising in many areas of rural India) and poverty. A steady and focused effort has been discovering many of those who have the first 50 per cent, and there is an ongoing and continuous struggle to add on the second 50 per cent.

Though this escapes the headlines, a strategy has been systematically implemented over the past years to tap India's tremendous pool of talent, and give it the nutritional, training and infrastructure support that can rescue it from the oblivion into which it is currently sinking. It is this strategy that has produced the enormous diversity of representation in the many teams at the national sub-junior, junior and senior levels of the game.

K.P.S.Gill is former director-general of police, Punjab. He is also Publisher, SAIR and President, Institute for Conflict Management. This article was first published in The Pioneer.


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