When I took up sports journalism in the late 1980s, Indian hockey was on a losing spree. I had to wait for five years for the for the moment of joy. And it was sweet. It came in 1991 at Ipoh, Malaysia, when the Indian team defeated a strong Pakistan side at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The winning goal — a shriller of a shot from young winger Mukesh Kumar — is still etched in my memory.
A few days after the victory, a handful of journalists gathered at the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) office at the National Stadium in New Delhi and one of us asked the then federation President, Raghu Nandan Prasad, “Sir, how much money are you going to give the winning team?” “What? I gave them air tickets, organised boarding and lodging. Aur kya doon? Taj Mahal?” The reporter was shocked. I was shocked too, but much later when I found out that the team’s tickets were not bought by Prasad, who was the then Managing Director of Indian Airlines, but by the Human Resources Development Ministry. Also it was the Malaysian organisers who had taken care of the players’ boarding and lodging. Following a ‘national outcry’, Prasad was later forced to give a princely sum of Rs 1 lakh to the team.
Even today, soundbite-hungry journalists keep asking about the details of match fees. The frequency of such queries increase whenever the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) revises its fee structure for the players, which happens almost every time Sachin Tendulkar or Mahendra Singh Dhoni hits a century. When told that there is no match fee in hockey, they are not shocked because they feel that I am hiding the necessary information for my own story. But the reality is what K.P.S. Gill once told a news magazine: “Match fee is bribery.” When he made this comment, the Indian Premier League (IPL) had not yet started and Lalit Modi was a BCCI foe. Now, after the IPL auction, one wonders what will he say.
Gill, many claim, means what he says. They are correct. When Dhanraj Pillay, under the false impression that a captain should fight for his team, organised a protest on the eve of the India-Pakistan series in 1998 and demanded some money, Gill refused to ‘bribe’ them. And despite winning the gold at the Asian Games after 32 years, six players were sacked. Unlike the judiciary, Gill was prompt in punishing the guilty because another Indo-Pak series was to start shortly. In one master stroke, Gill thus destroyed not just Pillay’s fire but a potential Rs 1,000-crore hockey mall. Instead, he preferred to open a petty shop, a telecast deal with Doordarshan. For this, he paid one Krishna Mech, a hefty 20 per cent commission. Unlike in the defence sector, middlemen are allowed in Doordarshan. For the first time, journalists took interest in the ‘cash-rich’ IHF’s turnover, only to find out that Gill had spent Rs 7.8 lakh on telephone bills while only Rs 2.5 lakh had been spent on players’ welfare.
Indian hockey, which mesmerised the world with its stick-wielding wizards, have come across so many such shocks that it did not need a new one like the Chile chiller, when India failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years. For all practical purposes, hockey is a shock absorber. To say the game needs such a shock to revive its fortunes and wake up an indifferent public is like saying that a patient should be killed so that the surgeon can understand a surgical process.
Hockey absorbs and absolves the likes of Gill, an indifferent public and the media. What it finds difficult to swallow is Sports Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar turning out to be the most unlikely protector of the likes of Gill. When a dozen Olympians met him last year after a protest march, Aiyar lectured them on how one of them could contest the IHF election instead of agreeing to initiate any action. Had he taken any action that time, the Chile debacle of Sunday would not have happened.
Indian hockey can elect someone else other than Gill as IHF President and try to change its fortune. But what is the guarantee that Aiyar will not give the Hockey Federation Chief the freedom to kill, shoot and destroy? Does Aiyar know that Ministers in Malaysia are forbidden from holding posts in sports bodies? If Aiyar wants to revive hockey, there are many ways to do it. But if he closes his eyes, hockey will have to live with such shockers as India’s shameful inability to not make it to the Beijing Olympics.
K Arumugam is Editor, Stick2Hockey