INDIAN HOCKEY woke up to a bright dawn on October 22, 2001. Our juniors had won the World Cup thrashing Argentina 6-1. It was their first major triumph at the world level after the victory in the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Led by Gagan Ajit Singh, the team showed huge potential and suddenly the future of Indian hockey looked bright. Soon after, most of them dribbled their way into the senior squad, lending it a new and refreshed look.
Cut to 2007, and one would have expected to see this talented bunch forming the core of the team. That, however, was not to be. One after the other, they fell by the wayside. Unsure of a comeback and fed up at being ignored, their captain recently took up full responsibilities as a policeman. So what if he was the highest scorer in the last Premier Hockey League (PHL).
The highest goalscorer in the 2001 meet with 10 goals, Deepak Thakur, is not being considered despite a decent performance in the domestic circuit, Jugraj Singh’s blooming career was cut short by an unfortunate accident, Viren Rasquinha has been almost forgotten, Vikram Pillay and Devesh Chauhan, too, are sailing in the same boat. At best, they are bits-and-pieces players now.
Clearly, the group hasn’t been handled well. They were undoubtedly talented, but veered off the track somewhere.
“We needed to show more confidence in them rather than dropping them at the slightest provocation. No wonder, we don’t have a settled team even with the crucial Olympic qualifiers around the corner,” said a former player on condition of anonymity.
The class of 2001 isn’t the only one on the verge of being forgotten. India won the sub-junior Asia Cup in Malaysia in 2000 and were junior Asian champions four years later. Yet, only Tushar Khandekar and Prabodh Tirkey feature in the squad for next month’s Asia Cup.
Nowhere to go
Another area of concern is the grooming of available talent. There is neither any programme for promoting the sport at the grassroots nor enough tournaments which prepare fringe and upcoming players for the international level.
“There is no vision, plan or programme for the development of juniors,” said Olympian and coach Sukhvir Grewal. “The junior teams are normally formed just ahead of the tournament and then we hear nothing of that team. We desperately need a junior development programme to tap and groom the talent at the grassroots level and facilitate its transition to the senior level.”
Referring to the initiative IHF had taken in terms of developing junior teams for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Grewal asked why it hadn’t been done before.
“We ought to have junior teams all the time and give them international exposure, irrespective of whether any tournaments are lined up or not,” he said, wondering if the current programme would be a regular feature or, as usual, end with the Games.
Selectors have it easy
“Our selectors just don’t believe in grooming players. The players are picked and axed at the drop of hat. There is always a sword hanging on their heads,” said Gagan Ajit Singh.
The forward questioned the selectors’ accountability. “Players and coaches are the first casualties after every debacle, but the selectors are never questioned. Why is there no accountability for them?”
Indian hockey’s history is studded with instances when players have been picked and dropped on flimsy grounds. Besides, the selectors are apparently obsessed with the habit of making wholesale changes after every failure, a practice well established by the fact that as many as 60 players have represented the country within three years of Athens.
“The national jersey comes cheap now,” Gagan Ajit said.
National selector Harmeek Singh doesn’t agree. “We have given a chance to so many players, so I don’t think players can complain on that count. If a player fails to grab the chance, it’s his fault,” he said.
Overseas, it’s only meritocracy
Fair enough Mr Singh. But have the selectors stopped to wonder why the players continue to be sought after by foreign leagues even after they have been dropped from the national squad?
The Klein Zwitserland Club (Dutch League) wants to extend Gagan Ajit’s contract for a third year. Thakur and Rasquinha are playing for the Stuttgart Kickers in the German League. Arjun Halappa, who played in Spain last year, will be turning out in the German league this time.
“Indians are always in demand in the European leagues for their skill. And what draws us to the leagues is their professionalism, the respect and care we get there, besides the tough competition,” Thakur said.
“The foreign clubs want the best players; it doesn’t matter to them whether you are in the national squad or not. All that matters to them is your performance,” said Gagan.
Shouldn’t that apply to the Indian context too?