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Pushed to a corner

Hockey is an invisible sport. Consider this. The Indian players revolted recently. What they wanted was match fee or reward for playing 47 matches last year, which included winning medals, cups and Test series.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2010 01:07 IST
K. Arumugam

Hockey is an invisible sport. Consider this. The Indian players revolted recently. What they wanted was match fee or reward for playing 47 matches last year, which included winning medals, cups and Test series.

If hockey is our national sport, how many of us could enjoy the dazzling skills that our players exhibited in those 47 matches? Not many.

Because, 90 per cent of the matches were played outside India without ‘live’ telecast. The seven matches hosted in India were telecast deferred. For a sport fan, therefore, hockey did not exist. He did not see hockey or his sporting heroes on the turf.

Usually, hockey is seen more on news channels than on sports channels or in newspapers thanks to its ability to stir up controversies with regularity.

When the sport is not visible, all the negative things are in the limelight. That is why hockey means KPS Gill or Suresh Kalmadi to many, known for their spoilsport sagas, or at best Jugraj Singh’s car accident. Sandeep Singh’s goals or Arjun Halappa’s body dodges hardly stay etched in one’s mind.

Politics and negativity are there in every sport, including cricket, but the very sight of MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar scoring a century or a fifty overshadows it. Fans remember sixes and centuries, not just the Sharad Pawars and Jagmohan Dalmias.

The fallouts of the lack of visibility are many: no role models, no returns for corporate houses even if they want to pump in money and the worst — even die-hard fans turn to other sports.

In this era of T-20s and T-10s, the sport does not have a single innovation to show. Still the age-old format of 35 minutes each half, 11 players on each side, continues. Six-a-side, indoor hockey and rink hockey are popular here and there, but not promoted as a
universal package that is marketable to a wider audience.

Said hockey legend Richard Charlesworth, chief coach of Australia’s men’s team: “If hockey has to become a popular sport, there should be less number of players playing at a time. Complex rules should not be there, even the penalty corner is not required.”

In its last executive committee meeting at Melbourne, the Federation Internationale de Hockey took a step in this direction. A committee is now exploring the question of finding exciting formats. A path-breaking announcement is likely to be made during next month’s World Cup in Delhi.

Said Abijit Sarkar, spokesman Sahara India, sponsors of both hockey and cricket: “If hockey has to be revived, the federation has to be transparent, players should win more tournaments, and the government should recognise those who support hockey.”

“The Premier Hockey League came before the Indian Premier League. The cricket event went on to become a hit, but the PHL stopped abruptly due to federation politics,” said Sarkar.

So, what is the way out of the morass? Good administration, transparency, frequent tournaments hosted in the country wherever hockey is popular. “Victories and visibility go together. When India won the 2003 Asia Cup, we brought out full-page advertisements with Amitabh Bachchan in them,” added Sarkar.

After six days of agitation and negotiations with Hockey India over delayed cash incentives, the team resumed practice on Thursday. During the agitation, it gained an outpouring of support from business houses, fans and people.

On Wednesday, even Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati decided to loosen her purse strings and pitch in with a contribution of Rs five crore for the hockey team.

“Whatever happened last week proved that hockey connects with people. It is a big boost for the sport and the coming World Cup,” said Jamie Stewart, Managing Director, Commune Sports and Entertainment, event managers for the World Cup.

A consistent television product is what hockey needs urgently, said Stewart. “Once the new administration assumes control of hockey in India, a fresh start can be made. The blueprint that Rick Charlesworth formulated could form a good starting point and the World Cup coming to India after 27 years, will place hockey back where it belongs— on the centrestage of India’s psyche,” he added.

The national sport deserves that.

(The author is a hockey historian)