Australia, during the Champion’s Trophy. With less than 15 minutes to go, I was in despair, a condition familiar to fans of Indian hockey teams of the era. Germany led 5-1, and all seemed lost. Some players exhibited that old Indian tendency to drop shoulders, lose stamina and listlessly accept defeat before it came.
That night, something in the body language of one Pargat Singh — the furrowed brow, the hard running, the nagging tone (which he still uses today, with hockey’s administrators) — persuaded me to keep watching when the rest of the house had turned in.
First, Pargat scored off a penalty corner. It sparked a rare Indian fight-back to 5-3. Then came the most brilliant solo effort I’ve ever seen. Pargat started off from India’s 25-yard line and sliced through the entire German team before slotting the ball home. More than Gavaskar or Tendulkar, Pargat is my sporting hero because those 15 minutes produced a euphoria I’ve never experienced since.
Last week, that old euphoria re-emerged, when India opened its run in the current World Cup in Delhi with a 4-1 spanking of Pakistan. I found myself with a bunch of college friends from 1985 — part of a 13-15 million nationwide audience that night — beseeching the team to get to 7-1. I feel little animosity towards Pakistan per se, so I was surprised when I found myself demanding revenge for the ignominy for the 1982 Asian Games.
Twenty seconds after Pargat’s second goal in 1985, the match ended. Germany 5; India 5.
The tournament itself was not memorable. India suffered its first-ever defeat to Britain and wound up sixth of six teams.
There was more reason to remember the Indian cricket team that year. It was in 1985 that India won the World Championship of Cricket in Melbourne. The defining image of that tournament: the team careening around the stadium in Ravi Shastri’s prize Audi.
If cricket is the idea of the brash, new, individualistic India, hockey is the idea of a striving, self-effacing India that survives through its communal spirit. Apart from speed and physicality, there is something immutable in the hardscrabble, India-together appeal about hockey that enthrall me more than cricket, an appeal that stretches beyond the India of television, mass market, dominant communities and hero worship.
Hockey’s players, a motley collection of minorities and remote societies, have rarely been from mainstream India: the Sikhs, the Coorgis (Arjun Halappa with his south-Indian English skills is the go-to guy for television channels), the Muslims from Uttar Pradesh (none in this team), the Catholic Bandra boys (Adrian D’Souza, India’s first-choice goalkeeper), the tribals of Jharkhand and Orissa, the Manipuris, and, previously, Anglo-Indians (now transferred to Canada and New Zealand).
Hockey disappeared from our lives, in part, because it disappeared from our television screens. Just when television began defining the 1990s generation, Indian hockey was in the doldrums. By 2008 in Beijing, there was no Indian hockey team, the first absence from the Olympics in more than 90 years since India’s first hockey gold.
Hockey retreated to the peripheries of newspapers and our memories — until last week.
To many who play the game, hockey is less about glory than it is livelihood. When cricketing stars retire, they often wind up in ties, suits and microphones. When hockey stars retire, they, well, fade away.
So it is that the greatest hockey artiste of our times, Mohammed Shahid — he who ran rings around the best Pakistanis, including the great Hasan Sardar — has retreated to a cubbyhole in his home town, Varanasi, forgotten and imbued with a fear of flying, though he has no invitation to anywhere.
Even if India’s win against Pakistan proves a flash in the pan, their free-flowing moves, quick passes and relentless running reveal that India’s coach, the gruff Spaniard Jose Brasa, may be reviving an old passion in modern form.
Brasa is paid a monthly salary of Rs. 4.27 lakh. There is hope in this. India’s cricket coach Gary Kirsten gets Rs. 13.8 lakh a month.
There is hope, too, at the once-ramshackle-now-sparkling stadium hosting the World Cup, the Dhyan Chand National Stadium in Delhi. To remind you, it’s named after a small, wiry man who in the course of a 22-year-old career (1926-48) scored more than a thousand goals, his wizardry best embodied in a statue in Vienna where Dhyan Chand sports four hands and four hockey sticks.
I was there when India crashed to a 5-2 defeat on Tuesday. The rout did nothing to dim the fervour. Despite the defeat, the security, the difficulty in getting tickets, everyone around me applauded the Aussies, and then declared they would be back.
The World Cup at the National Stadium is Indian hockey’s great opportunity to claw its way back into India’s consciousness and, perhaps, become a nationwide vehicle for aspiration and excitement.
Could we do a hockey version of cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL)? A day after India’s victory, IPL tsar Lalit Modi tweeted this to my fellow columnist, Rajdeep Sardesai: “I agree we could do with a hockey IPL. Please build consensus (sic) around the country. Will be happy to provide the blueprint.”