When the first-ever Asian Hockey Stars XI was selected after the 1974 Tehran Asian Games, a match against an Indian XI was allotted to Delhi, but it had no takers. With neither the Indian Hockey Federation nor the Delhi Hockey Association willing to organise the game, the Nehru Hockey Society (NHS), then 10 years old, stepped in.
The NHS not only hosted the event successfully, where for the first time Indian and Pakistani players rubbed shoulders, but also netted a profit of Rs.75,000. That princely sum was invested to lay a strong financial foundation for the NHS. Thirty-two years later, the same NHS gives away Rs 12 lakh as cumulative prize money, one cannot but marvel at the Society's systematic growth.
While some domestic tournaments are soaked in history, others like the National Championships are under the aegis of the IHF. But the Nehru competitions, now in their 43rd year, stand out. Pre-Independence events like the Beighton Cup (Kolkata), Aga Khan Cup (Bombay), Scindia Cup (Gwalior), MCC Gold Cup (Chennai) and Obaidullah Khan Cup (Bhopal) are now past. Their popularity has gone down for a variety of reasons, significantly the want of synthetic turfs. Except for the Beighton Cup, they are not even held regularly. Against this bleak scenario, the Nehru Cup has become the pride of the present.
It is the country's only Grade I tournament held without fail since inception and starts on a fixed date. Delhi has seen the death of several tournaments -- the Ghaffar Khan, Sanjay Gandhi and Shivaji Cup events to quote a few, which makes this significant.
But the NHS has blossomed. There were difficult times -- after Indira Gandhi's assassination and the Babri Masjid demolition -- but were sorted out.
When the Shivaji Stadium turf became unplayable, they moved to the National Stadium -- even to Amritsar and Rourkela -- to ensure continuity. In contrast, the Aga Khan and Bombay Gold Cup organisers, when faced with similar problems, refused to shift and willingly cancelled many events.
No hockey body in India conducts as many tournaments as the NHS. The Nehru Hockey tournaments in Delhi (September to November) exceed the Folkstone Festival of England, where most of the United Kingdom's teams assemble.
Every year, about 120 teams in different age groups vie for honours. The teams for the Junior Nehru Cup are selected -- and sponsored -- by state federations, who in turn conduct district level competitions to pick eligible teams. Thus, it helps keep the game alive across the nation.
According to Shiv Kumar Varma, the NHS secretary since 1964, the real danger to the event is the lack of quality teams. "Northern Railways won the first event, and they were the first to withdraw this year! Despite our phenomenal reach sponsors are less enthusiastic," he says.
However, another cause of concern is the conservatism of the NHS. When you consciously keep away from the IHF politics, then why invite politicians for all ceremonies? Why is the format so rigid? The PHL is popular because of innovative elements. While the NHS has expanded its activities (Charity matches in aid of Chuni Lal, Dhyan Chand and Joginder Singh, for instance) why is it allergic to innovation? The NHS must realise that it will be left behind the times if it continues to be pegged by routine in the name of tradition.