The scenario is definitely bleak where Indian hockey is concerned. The year 2006 saw several high-profile events, and unfortunately, India failed to register its presence on the world scene.
Counting the lowlights of 2006 for Indian hockey is easy — there were too many of them. Beginning with India's disastrous performance in the Commonwealth Games in March, where the Indian men finished sixth, to the fifth-place finish at the Asiad in Doha, Indian hockey has gone from bad to worse.
At every major tournament, our performance left a lot to be desired, and there is no point in playing the blame game. Everyone is responsible for the situation we are in today, though the federation should get the major share of the blame, and rightly so.
Our World Cup outing in September was also a disaster. It is a poor reflection on the planning aspect that, despite so many major tournaments lined up through the year, India did not play more competitive hockey.
In fact, now that qualification for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is possible only by winning one of the three qualifying tournaments (beginning February 2008), I would suggest that we start planning and working in right earnest immediately.
We are lucky to have more than a year to prepare, which is sufficient to at least win one of the qualifiers. There should be more games played, more teams played against, consistency and continuously. That is the only way to prepare for major events.
On my part, there are other things that may not strike immediately, but are indicative of the fall in standards of Indian hockey. For the first time in many years, there was no Indian player in the FIH Young Player of the Year Award. Though no Indian has ever won it, this time there were no nominations either, which reflects poorly on our performances.
Also, the Sandeep Singh tragedy. It would be stating the obvious that his absence made a lot of difference to India's fortunes at the World Cup and the Asiad, but it is no excuse. One only hopes that Sandeep returns soon and fits into India's scheme of things for the qualifiers and the Olympics. India needs him, and fast.
One other thing that I feel India need if hockey has to be revived, and that the federation refuses to accept, is the realisation that youngsters need heroes and icons to pick up any sport. While we were winning regularly, there was no dearth of players to be inspired by.
But now, there are no stars. And, let us admit, stars are the bloodline for any sport today. From cricket to tennis to shooting to golf, the various sports that are in the limelight all have their stars. In hockey, there is no one. The federation's policy of desisting from creating stars has affected the game's popularity at the grassroots.
In fact, the few stars --- or characters in the game --- that were capable of involving the public at any time, and making them feel a part of the whole show, have been sidelined. Whether it was Dhanraj Pillay's histrionics or Len Aiyappa's controversial statements, they have been successfully negated. In the process, the game loses its colour.
But, being the eternal optimist, I have still hope. The kind of crowd PHL attracted in January proves that, if marketed well and made attractive, hockey still brings in the numbers, and also the moolah. The need is to realise the strengths of the game and work on them.
Also, the FIH has begun to take India's decline seriously and is willing to share its resources and expertise for the development of the sport. The onus now lies on the IHF.
As told to Uthra Ganesan.
(Jagbir Singh is a former Olympian and India coach.)