As with its invention of the zero, India maintains a strange relationship with its ‘national game’, hockey. It prefers to rest on Indian hockey’s history and hope that somehow, sometime, our players will suddenly shrug off their torpor and become regular world-beaters again. That, alas, is never going to happen. If the actual game has changed beyond recognition from the halcyon days of Dhyan Chand and other legendary wizards with their curved wands, what has not changed utterly is the approach of Indian hockey authorities to build a national team and sustain it. The deadlock between Hockey India and striking players may have ended with the former announcing that players will be “paid at the earliest” the amounts that they had demanded, but everything seems very murky with the taint of a crisis still very much hanging over Indian hockey.
The nadir was reached in 2008 when India failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. Again, that shameful failure was a symptom of an ailment that was left to fester. Hockey India President A.K. Mattoo’s statement on Tuesday captured this rot: “It seems for [the players] money is more important than playing for the country.” The very fact that someone entrusted with the job of encouraging India’s hockey players introduced an either-or into the stand-off smacks of an inability to understand not only the nature of modern professional hockey, but also modern sports in general. An ad hoc product of the Indian Olympic Association, Hockey India, was the result of a ‘tear-everything-up-and-start-from-scratch’ strategy after the Olympics debacle. But quite clearly, the ‘start-from-scratch’ part was left hanging. Hockey India has reportedly agreed to pay the agitating players the Rs 4.5 lakh they had demanded. This includes Rs 75,000 per player for the Junior Asia Cup squad, many of whom are now in the national squad, Rs 50,000 per player for the Test series against Argentina, New Zealand and Canada; and Rs 1 lakh for winning the prestigious Azlan Shah Cup after 14 years in 2009. The sports ministry will now be working out a grading system for pay. This has to be made transparent and not put on a shelf to be doled out during every crisis.
Indian hockey, as victory at the Azlan Shah pointed, is not without talent or potential. But to feed this talent, one needs to incentivise players. Corporate sponsorship works once a system is in place and when results are there to be seen. What is needed right now is a professional authority to encourage professional hockey in India. And that can’t come through bits and bobs, petty haggling and silly talk about ‘play for the country, not for money’.