Far removed from the glamour, glitz and crores which dominate the sporting discourse in our country, is the hockey world. It is a world dotted with players who don’t get millions to represent their country, nor do they have fancy jobs or get huge salaries, which would make their future safe and secure.
It is a world of petty bank clerks, plumbers, university students and the likes who take leave from their employers or even a break from their jobs or studies to play for their country. In fact the Indians are, ironically, the most privileged lot among the teams who are competing in the World Cup. Unlike them, the players from the other nations are not rewarded with decent jobs by the government for their skills on the field. The Indian team, again in comparison, gets “better” allowances and is showered with monetary rewards if they do well, like it happened when they beat Pakistan.
The South Africans, against whom India had such a tough time in drawing level, had no money to participate in the World Cup, and were finally funded with money arranged from a lottery. There are many instances where teams in the past have had to collect money themselves to participate in a world championship as governments have refused to fund them. Yet, India in the past three decades or so has languished far behind the other nations and, judging by the skills on display in this year’s World Cup, it is unlikely that they can regain their once undisputed champion status in the near future. The chasm between them and the top four teams is huge, be it basic skills of the game, speed, stamina, training or tactical acumen.
Watching the Australians or the other top teams control the ball, dribble with it, trap it dead and create spaces in the field, that too while running like grey hounds, is a spellbinding experience. We have for long been fed stories that India is a more skillful team but lose out to the Europeans because the artificial surface rewards brute strength more than subtle skills. This could have been true in the past, but not any more.
The free-flowing Europeans or the South Koreans are a sheer delight to watch. In contrast, the Indians not only lack basic skills, they commit more fouls and unnecessary rough tackles than the other teams.
The problem with Indian hockey is obviously deep-rooted and can’t be sorted out by getting good foreign coaches to train those who are already a finished product. If coach Barsa, as reports have suggested, had to correct the basics of the senior players, then there is something wrong with our grass-root training methods. What we need is a greater stress on junior training programmes which should be managed by people like Barsa and not just hire coaches for the National team and expect them to suddenly produce world beaters.
At a much larger level, the problem also stems from economic disparities, which infects our society. In the developed world, the amateur spirit of the players can remain alive, as insecurities of survival may not be an issue with them. The majority of aspiring young Indians who strive to play hockey in small towns and villages have little access to decent sporting facilities and are always worried about securing a future for themselves.
In India, there does not seem to be any middle ground possible: It is either the millions which cricket is offering or nothing.