It is one of the greatest ironies in Indian sport that barely weeks after turning in an amazing performance to lift the men’s Asia Cup, hockey players have to go on hunger strike to get recognition for their efforts. Throughout the Asia Cup tournament, the Men in Blue were in magnificent form, winning all the matches in the series and scoring 57 goals — a record for any team — that included a 20-0 win against Sri Lanka. The team’s splendid 7-2 victory over South Korea in the Cup final even set a new benchmark for upcoming tourneys like the Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Cup. Which makes the reported decision of the players to protest in this manner all the more unfortunate. The players may have a genuine grouse that cricket has hogged the limelight and pushed hockey into the shadows. But then cricket also happens to be the only marketable sport in India today, thanks to the BCCI hardselling itself — unlike the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF).
With the media playing a very willing partner, is it any wonder that the talent of our hockey players stays invisible for most of the time while even lesser talents in other sports are ‘packaged’ and seen better? The media, for instance, sat up and took note of the Indian win in the Asia Cup only after the finals. This is a shame since one game need not exclude another. Doesn’t Germany play international football with as much zeal as hockey? It is sad that monetary rewards in the country are confined to a few sports like cricket and, to a much lesser extent, soccer, which leaves hardly any incentive to inspire India’s immense hockey talent. When some of the world’s best dribblers get to stay at hotels where even state cricket teams wouldn’t, how can the IHF take it for granted that players will play their hearts out for the paltry match fees they get?
The Sports Ministry made matters worse by recently demoting hockey from its ‘priority list’. The IHF should address the lack of interest in the game at the grassroots level in traditional hockey playing states like Karnataka, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Unless we ensure that the game is run professionally and that the players get sponsors, hockey will remain a game that we used to excel in.