In the 40 years of passionately following sports, nearly 30 of which have been spent as a journalist, there are just two occasions on which I can recall shedding tears of disappointment. While cricket has been my abiding passion since childhood, it is hockey that has an emotional hold on me. I believe that is the case with many of my fellow countrymen. It is impossible to decide which is our national sport. But it is hockey that brought us glory on the world stage even before India made it into international cricket in 1932. And remember, hockey is played by more than 100 countries around the world.
It was in 1973 when India lost the World Cup final to hosts, the Netherlands — that too after leading 2-0 at half-time — that the tears of anger, frustration and bitterness began to flow. Then at Sydney in 2000 with qualification for the Olympics semi-finals just a whisker away, India botched it in their final league match against Poland. They needed to win or even draw 2-2. The match ended 1-1. As a professional on the job, I guess I had no business to show my emotions. But I was not the only one in the press box at that moment to let it all out. While tennis and cricket were my father’s favourite sports, hockey was my mother’s reason to play hooky from college. Especially if she had the chance to watch her heartthrob, the dashing A.I.S. Dara (who would move to Pakistan after Partition). Till one day she was caught out — the next day’s newspaper had her photo cheering from the crowd!
What really counts in hockey are the Olympics and the World Cup with the Asian Games a distant third. And in all these events it is still an India-Pakistan tie that sets the pulses racing. It was probably the first time in nearly 200 years of existence at our school in Calcutta that morning assembly was temporarily put on hold. Even the teachers were beside themselves with excitement as Aslam Sher Khan saved India’s skin in the semi-finals of the 1975 World Cup. And then came the triumph in the final against Pakistan. Oh joy of joys! Sadly, there was no live TV to watch our heroes in their moment of glory. Twenty years later I asked Aslam to sign my schoolboy scrapbook of photos and cuttings of that memorable event. “Puranee yaadein, ” he said as his eyes welled up.
Indian hockey’s golden chance came at the final of the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi. With the who’s who of the capital out in force, India struck first against Pakistan. Then came the deluge as we were overwhelmed 1-7. It was a humiliation that has now been matched 26 years later.
Cricket on the other hand grabbed its chance. Just a year after the Asian Games, our boys stunned themselves as much as the cricket world by winning the Prudential World Cup in England. And ever since then it has been a one-horse sporting race in India.
In faraway Chile the last nail was hammered into Indian hockey’s coffin last week. What a long journey it has been from Amsterdam in 1928 to Santiago in 2008.
Gulu Ezekiel is a sports journalist and author based in New Delhi