January 29, 2013

CHAK DE... INDIA

CAN HIL RESTORE INDIAN HOCKEY'S LOST PRIDE

Courtesy: Outlook India
It was once the pride of the nation. For the first few times since it became a permanent fixture in the Summer Olympics in 1928, this sport brought both, name and fame to the country and its people, much before we became a sovereign state. The dominance continued even after independence and subsequent partition. It was here that some of the best players in history - famed right half Leslie Claudius, expert forwards Balbir Singh Sr. and Mohammed Shahid and arguably the greatest player to have ever played this game, Dhyan Chand were born. However, as Dr. Mallya will tell you, 'Good times do not last forever'. Blame it on the introduction of astro turfs and the utter failure of Indians to adapt to it or the callousness of the administrators and the government; the rise of cricket or the inability of the national teams to do well in major tournaments on a consistent basis, post 1980, Indian Hockey seems to have fallen into a bottomless pit, from where there is little or no hope, whatsoever of making any sort of comeback. The very fact that India - eight time Olympic champions, rather embarrassingly failed to even qualify for the games in Beijing and then, finished last in London, sums up the whole story. As the region of influence shifted, first to neigbouring Pakistan and then to Europe and Australia, sadly, our national sport still remains ailed by innumerable malaise which needed to be weeded out for those good old days to come back. I believe that the first edition of the Hockey India League (HIL) that kick started on 14th January this year could just be the first step in this direction.

The HIL is a hockey tournament featuring five teams based out of prominent cities that play against each other, at home and away, in round robin format over a period of time. Organized by Hockey India, which is one of the two, yes two bodies, presently governing our national sport and having the blessings of the International Hockey Federation (IHF), this league is based on the lines of the Indian Premiere League (IPL) and some what similar to the much hyped and now defunct Premiere Hockey League (PHL). Consisting of five franchisee - Wave Group's Delhi Wave Riders, Dabur's Mumbai Magicians, Jaypee Group's Punjab Warriors, Ranchi Rhinos promoted by the Patel-Uniexel Group and Sahara-owned Uttar Pradesh Wizards, the inaugural edition will see the international stars and local heroes, chosen by teams via bidding, battle it out for the coveted first prize which carries a handsome cash prize besides several other incentives for outstanding performances for each game, both for the players and spectators. With the IHF allocating a 30 day window for the HIL, some of the most talented players in the world including 'Player of the Year' Holland's Teun de Nooijer, Australian legend Jamie Dwyner and German skipper Morris Fuertze will participate in the tournament, providing a once in a lifetime opportunity for Indian players, especially the younger lot, to learn and improve their games by interacting with them. Besides the moolah, quality coaches and training staff, state of the art facilities and finally, media and public attention will all contribute in building a positive atmosphere for the growth of hockey in the country.

Cricket, which enjoys the position of religion in the country has often been criticized for the sorry state that other sports find themselves in. However, the performance of the Men in Blue over the last two years has been far from satisfactory. After lifting the 2011 World Cup, the consecutive overseas series whitewash, first in England and then Australia, the retirement of stalwarts like Dravid and Laxman and more recently, the shocking defeat to Englishmen on 'turning' tracks at home has meant that India which was then at the apex of test rankings is now languishing at the 5th spot. On the other hand, though we may have reclaimed the top spot in ODIs, the shock defeat to Pakistan at home over the year end and the failure to qualify for the finals of the Asia Cup, courtesy a defeat to the minnows Bangladesh still hurts all cricket fans, including me. And the retirement of the 'God', Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar from limited overs cricket has left a void, especially amongst those who have seen the game in the 90s when the little boy from Mumbai carried the burden of expectation of the Indian public. Moreover, with the team playing non-stop throughout the year, with minimal breaks, there is a feeling that interest level amongst the spectators is dipping. Thus with the popularity of the game dwindling, it is an opportunity for other outdoor and indoor games to make a mark. With the introduction of the HIL coinciding with decline in cricket, the latter's loss could just be hockey's gain.

Of course, one thing to be added here is that the HIL is not some magic wand that will put the things in order, not atleast for the next 2-3 years. The problems that ail Indian hockey are complex and deep rooted, they will certainly not be solved just by a month long tournament. The power tussle between Hockey India and the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) has still not been resolved fully and there is an urgent need to bring the two warring parties together so as to iron out all existing differences. Secondly, astro turfs stadiums need to be set up in different parts of the country and all domestic tournaments should be played on them. In fact, training sessions for all levels should be conducted on artificial turfs. Considering that these turfs are quite expensive, the Sports Ministry needs to take a more proactive role here by urging the Union government to announce a special funds for the revival of hockey. Hockey camps and academies need to be set up in places like Jharkhand, Punjab, Odisha and Coorg in Karnataka, which have traditional been associated with this game. Besides quality coaches and support staff, former legends from India and abroad need to be roped in to mentor the younger sides. The Corporate sector too needs to do it part by investing in the development of the game. I must mention that Hero Moto Corp, the title sponsor of the HIL is leading the way here and has been associated with several other tournaments in the past.

And last but not the least, the national side needs to win some of the upcoming tournaments to re-kindle public interest in the game, without which it will die a slow and rather painful death. Remember, it was that unexpected win against the might West Indies in 1983 that help cricket achieve the cult-like status that it enjoys today, turning the members of the victorious team into demi-gods over night. While it is true that Indian hockey too has seen many such glorious day in the past, in fact much more than cricket, it is a fact that our wins have come during a time when European nations had just started playing this sport. As such, a podium finish in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics or the 2014 Hockey World Cup today, at a time when the odds are stacked against us, could tip the balance in the national sport's favour. With the world class players being a part of it, the experience of playing in the HIL will surely boost the morale of the team, helping them perform better in the upcoming days. The players should make the best of the opportunity that this league provides them, picking up tips from the coaches and players around them will certainly come in handy while playing at the international level. Hopefully, the day is not far when we see our team beats the best in the world and re claims those good old times of Indian hockey. Come on India, Chak de!


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(1) Courtesy: Outlook India Source: Outlook India - India at the Olympics (Link)