Year 2003. A watershed in Indian hockey. The team had finished on the podium in most events they played. It made stars of names unknown.
Cut to 2007. After a four-year drought, the Indian team strikes gold again, retaining the Asia Cup title and dominating the opposition like not seen in recent times. With only four survivors from the all-conquering squad of 2003, it was a moment to savour and, perhaps, assert their newfound belief in themselves.
The overwhelming number of goals scored and the complete disintegration of a strong team like South Korea were enough to trigger talks of a revival of Indian hockey. Victory came after a series of bronze since coach Joaquim Carvalho took over in April. The transformation began when — in the very first tournament under the new coach — the team finished third in Malaysia despite some big names missing.
At the same time, the country’s national game faced the ultimate ignominy of being demoted from the priority list by the
Perhaps, it was this decision that, somewhere deep down, hurt. Even though Indian hockey had become synonymous with failure, it manages to evoke an emotional connect. “Which other team has had eight golds in the Olympics,” was the general refrain.
For the players now, it was the present that counted. And so, when India finished third at the Champions Challenge in Belgium, it was perhaps a reminder to the mandarins that this team can still win. Coach Carvalho would not rest on his laurels, neither would he let the team do so. An emphasis on fitness and fighting spirit, and constant reminders to the players that a match is not over till the final hooter sounds, were the cornerstones of the new mantra.
With a relatively new captain in defender Prabodh Tirkey — who led the team at the junior level also — it was the right mix of youth and experience. “Hard work and fitness were his obsession. After this, no one can say we lag in fitness or speed,” striker Tushar Khandker had said after the Asia Cup victory. It is a measure of confidence in their coach that the players refuse to claim any individual credit.
The big stage
The Asia Cup was to be their biggest test. With China, Korea, Japan and Pakistan in the fray, there were doubts on whether the team would be able to measure up to the hype. Game One against China, and India struggled but managed to win. It heralded something new — the team won after taking lead; they suffered no last-minute blues; and they won the battle of nerves. Against a team like China, it was definitely an achievement.
Thereon, it was a team possessed. The Indians were on a roll and there was no stopping them. A total of 57 goals in seven games, conceding only four and complete annihilation of their opponents, it was Indian hockey’s renaissance.
The Asia Cup win was also the Second Coming for several players. Prabhjot Singh, his talent unquestioned but his attitude under doubt, chose the stage to exhibit a new flair. Dilip Tirkey, the game’s ‘Wall’ for more than a decade, said:
“I have to work twice as hard as the youngsters on the fitness front.” He did that, and it never appeared that he was twice as old as some team-mates.
Ignace Tirkey proved again why he is rated so highly by coaches across the world. Bimal Lakra, who almost never played for the country again after leaving an India camp in a huff, has become integral to the team.
True, there were whispers of Carvalho packing the side with players from his employers. True, there were some who perhaps did not deserve to be donning the India colours. True, the coach appeared biased against some senior players.
But, in the end, all this ceased to matter. The players he continued to back, despite repeated failures, finally stood up to be counted. Those he had criticised earlier for not fitting his “scheme of things” earned his open praise by the sheer dint of performance. And for those who continue to be sceptic of the achievement, the team kept reminding them that, of the four teams they beat in the space of ten days, three had finished above them in the Asian Games.
India have yet to qualify for the Olympics. But this hockey team gives hope. And, on a pleasant, breezy Sunday night, after a long, long time, it gave its followers a reason to smile.