There is always a beginning to the end of a pleasant dream — a point at which things start to unravel. Even when a series of incidents, decisions and misadventures activate the self-destruct bomb, there is at least one event that either sparks off the downfall or accelerates its pace.
In case of Indian hockey, the introduction of astro-turf in 1975 acted as a catalyst of slump. The international hockey federation's (FIH) decision may not have been directly responsible for the slump in the game’s standard, but it did result in India slowly losing ground. India won its only World Cup in 1975 in Malaysia. However, the fact that the results dried up a few years after that, barring a few bright moments like the 1980 Olympic gold medal and the 1998 Asian Games gold medal, prove that the country failed to adapt to astro-turf.
Slow on the uptake
Though it was not the sole reason and a conspiracy by the Western nations to pull the Indian and Pakistanis down as was made out by hockey officials for many years, former India captain Zafar Iqbal says that decision changed the face of Indian hockey.
“Introduction of the turf brought about a drastic change in the way the game was played and India and Pakistan were left behind as we could not install the turfs early due to lack of funds,” Zafar says. The federation too made only half-hearted efforts to get the turf and India could install its first synthetic surface only in the early 80s.
International Jagbir Singh says that by the time the Indians and Pakistanis mastered the art of playing on astro-turf, the world had moved way ahead. “You can never hope to catch up with the leaders when starting 10 metres behind in the 100m race. The gap was too big to fill instantly.”
It’s a new game, guys
Hockey became faster, and more fitness and tactics-oriented rather than individual skill, which Indian players thrived on. With frequent rule changes, the sport is today at such a stage that if the legendary Dhyan Chand were to step on to the turf, he would not recognise it.
Zafar, who experienced the struggle of moving from the grass to the turf himself, says it was difficult for the Indians to come to terms with the change.
“For astro-turf you actually need 2-3 times more stamina than on grass,” he says. “The hockey sticks also had to be modified, especially their curve. Of course the same problems were faced by the Europeans too but they had a head start because they got to use the turf earlier and had better R&D.” Though the Indians managed to hold their own for some time, they felt the effect at the crucial moments and lost out to the Europeans.
Though lack of fitness was the main problem initially, Jagbir says today our players as fit as the Europeans. However, they display less stamina because they run too much with the ball and are not good at off-the-ball running and one-touch passing.
By the time we mastered the art of playing on the turf, we also lost a lot of youngsters to other sports as the fans got wary of the defeats.
Besides the change of turf, Indian hockey also suffered as our coaches were not experienced enough to impart techniques or device effective youth development programmes that would have helped players excel on the turf. Thus we ended up with insufficient bench strength. Recently, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) chief himself admitted that we have only “40-odd selectable players.”
“Individually, our players have the skills to make it to any European team. But when it comes to tactics, our players lag behind. We need on work on that,” said Jagbir.
Till today coaches at the start-up level concentrate on dribbling and running with the ball and give less importance to trapping, passing and building fitness. That’s the reason why we see players trying to dribble through a crowd of opponents even at the sub-junior level. The IHF has managed to start a youth development programme only this year. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) has some centres and there have been some private efforts in this regard like the Air India Academy, but the efforts were not enough.
Says renowned coach PA Raphael: “We teach attacking hockey to the youngsters but the attacks are not planned. The boys are averse to passing the ball. The players develop basic flaws at a young age, which can’t be rectified at the national camp.”
‘Reconstruct the system’
Raphael prescribes an overhaul of the coaching system and sustained training from a young age, teaching players techniques that would help them survive in modern hockey.
”We are still sticking to a format that is not very conducive for astro-turf,” he says. “The coaches are not ready to adopt and the same is the case with the players. We need to develop a new system that combines the Asian skills with European hard running.”
Other renowned coaches too advocate a better coaching structure, a regular domestic calendar, better sports medicine backup and more astro-turfs.
But instead of bringing about these changes, those entrusted with running the game are flogging a limping horse, hoping that it will somehow manage to recover and start cantering.
It’s a fool’s paradise which doesn’t foster dreams. But then, who is listening?