The Indian hockey teams have been struggling over the last forty years, unable to combat the changes in hockey format, and unable to deal with speed, lightning moves, strength, fast passing and athletic body moves to score goals replacing skill, and dribbling as the most powerful needs of a successful team. The western and Australian teams have gone this route very successfully.
This unfortunately also led to a serious decline in hockey viewership, and to sponsorship, advertisements and the general glory and adulation associated with a sport, that spurns an athlete, far more than jobs and secure futures. As we kept slipping from the top, to top five, to not even in the top six, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) became first a fiefdom of dictatorial leaders (starting from the time we won the Kuala Lampur World Cup) and then onto an ineffective, egoistical organisation, and our hockey slipped even further. Run nearly like a proprietorship under retired bureaucrats and policemen, the IHF in many ways became instrumental in the decline of Indian hockey.
The base of good players dropped drastically, tournaments seized, including the National Games, we struggled to put together teams for international tournaments, coaches changed faster than seasons, and player morale kept dropping. It was in these times that the manner of playing hockey was also being transformed by a European hegemony of the FIH (the international Hockey body), which did not see any other way to break the dominance of the wizardry, skill and natural flayer of the Indians and the Pakistanis in hockey. From a game where the hands and the stick played a ball like a poem, where players moved between opponents and on the field like a waltz, the changes were a well thought our strategy working on strengths of the “whites” – speed, strength, fast paced game .
Unfortunately, it took India a very long time to reflect on and absorb these changes. Some of the most skilled Indian players, amongst the best in world, were unable to stop the European and Australian juggernauts. There were dismal tournament performances, and just as spirits sank, so did sponsorships, popularity of the game, number of serious players and Hockey disappeared from the hearts and minds of Indians. Interest would occasionally resurrect prior to the Olympics, or the Asian games or a Pakistan-India encounter, only to disappear again.
But then things started changing. And they started changing from about seven to eight years, co-inciding with a new management and the formation of Hockey India. As a new group of people took over the management of hockey administration, one got a feeling right then, somewhere around the time the New Delhi Hockey World Cup was played, that these hockey managers meant business, and their business was to make India a world power in their national game. Many things got stitched up, and my assessment is purely of an outsider, who tries to still watch every match that India plays. We got a management serious about its goals, which involved professionals, including young managers. We saw coaches being experimented, not just with the National Team but a nation wide coach plan and strategy. There were plans to engage more players through network of tournaments, increase bench strength of state and national teams, bring some publicity to the game through international matches and good sponsorship. After a long time, neither the federation nor the players were lamenting on lack of popular or media or financial support to their game, but started focussing on the game with a longer term vision. My reading is that they focussed on learning and devising a suitable style of hockey that can win matches, constant effort to get over individual and team limitations and then learn to start winning.
We saw the start of a new tournament, the India Hockey League, that gave our players, experience of playing alongside the worlds’ best, with players whose hockey was very different from ours. Indians played alongside the Australian Jamie Dwyer, Mathew Swann, Simon Orchard, Englishman Ashley Jackson, South African Austin Smith, Argentina’s Lucas Rey New Zealand’s Simon Child, Netherland’s Wouter Jolie etc. We also saw many tournaments being organised in India, like the Delhi World Cup, many of the Olympic and World Cup qualifiers, and the Championship Trophy in 2014 in Bhubhaneshwar. These tournaments brought back public interest and signaled both to our players and to the world that India is again a serious hockey nation. Not to be missed in this was the support of Hero, the sponsors of nearly all major hockey championships being held, both in India and abroad.
Of course the impact of these many changes and efforts brought very mixed results initially. In some tournaments we played some wonderful games, but we also saw our dismal last position performance at the London Olympic Games. Then gradually things showed improvement in results.
The Men’s Hockey Championship just concluded in London has finally stamped that all that happened over last seven to eight years has been to effect. Over the different matches, one saw the Indian team holding to itself and its strengths. Of course there were the moments when we lost out, loosing matches (as with Belgium), and drawing them (as with Germany). But then there were moments that showed what the Indian Team had become. The match with England, where we were struggling, and then beat England, the last quarter against Australia, where the Aussies did not know for those fifteen minutes what had hit them. Then the Final. Matching upto the undisputed World champions Australia, and perhaps the better in the fine balance in this Final was a signal that the Team has arrived. To hold you’re own, match the Australians in speed, and in counter attacking, tackling and breaking their legendary attack waves with calm and solidness, and that too in a Championship Final! Almost for first time we had rested some of our best players for a tournament, and yet we did so well, showing that we also have solid bench strength.
Its time to feel proud of what our hockey players have done. Its time to thank the Hockey India team, that despite you’re fights in the Courts, a cynical media, absent crowds, and the weight of a dismal near past, you stuck on, believed in the players and have opened a new phase for Indian Hockey. To the Coaches, our thanks. I was most impressed with a line that Coach Roelant Oltmans said on TV. Asked about whether India had fought well in a match, where we were drawing till then, he expressed dissatisfaction. The TV journalist asked why, and he said “We can win every match, if we play, so I am disappointed”. That is the mind of winner.
Lest we forget, a word for those running Hockey India. Sports bodies are always the butt of criticism. Even when Hockey India was designed out of the Indian Hockey Federation, media, promoted by the suckers of the previous regime did their best to malign the new body. Today, looking at what has happened since 2009, it can be said that this body actually promoted a game the way it should be. It has spent time on players, got right people to do the strategic planning and execution, not interfered with selections, brought in many erstwhile players, managed to find money, and kept itself out of the limelight. As we quietly celebrate the silver medal and pump ourselves with a hope of a sustained revival, we must also thank Hockey India.
A coach, a team, our players – they are telling us – that they can win every match. They have shown that they are almost there. It is time for us, for whom these players are playing, to be there when they play, cheer them, applaud them, respect them. They have come a long way, resurrected our national game from the depths to which it had gone. No team can win only on skills, talent, hard-work, strategy and the will to win. They need the roar of their supporters, the chants of their fans, and their own people just being there. There will still be matches we shall loose, times when we will loose our confidence, mess up chances, but if we are there with the Team that plays our colours, and no longer abandon them the way we did for last thirty years, the glory will come back. The glory of the game, and the glory of winning.