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A brief history of time

From British benevolence through Olympic glory to the current downward spiral, K Arumugam takes a look at the decline of India’s national sport.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2007 03:57 IST
K Arumugam
K Arumugam

There's a connection between the 'Inevitable Tragedy' of Winston Churchill's opening a third front in Gallipoli and Indian hockey.

It was Field Marshal Birdwood, the British commander who organised the retreat of ANZAC (combined Australia-New Zealand armies) from Gallipoli, who proposed that an Indian Army hockey team visit New Zealand in 1926 as a friendship gesture. That was our first-ever foreign tour, and it was a smash hit. And New Zealand made a profit of £300 even after paying India £500.

The British knew that victory for a colony would boost the Empire's image and did everything to realise this. Their officers were unbiased while projecting Indians as team leaders. It were the British who activated the Indian Hockey Federation's (IHF) global affiliation in 1927 and instituted an Inter-Provincial Championship one year later. The efforts led to India participating as a team at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 and winning gold.

At the next edition (Los Angeles, 1932), global economic depression meant that India were the only entrants. The then IHF president, A.M. Hayman, managed to convince Japan and the hosts, and ensured that hockey survived at the games.

Funds were a problem in the lead-up to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The first Indian to head the IHF, Jagdish Prasad, managed by collecting Rs 11,376 out of the required sum of Rs 45,000 from royal families, and India completed a hat-trick of Olympic golds.

Leadership problems

India was a free nation when the Olympics resumed after World War II (in 1948), but financial hardships continued. Naval Tata had to use his persuasive skills with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to send teams to the 1948 and 1952 Games. His successor Ashwini Kumar went a step further, mortgaging ancestral property to ensure the team participated in Melbourne.

For about three decades when these two luminaries ruled Indian hockey, no team returned without an Olympic medal. Ashwini in particular asserted his authority in the FIH and it counted on our on-field successes. But he had to go after finishing second and third respectively at the 1972 Olympics and the 1973 World Cup.

With the advent of synthetic turf, hockey changed forever. But the first synthetic surface came to India six years after it was introduced. And every time we failed, a scapegoat was found in the artificial surface. But the Montreal Olympics fiasco, where India finished seventh, was not due to synthetic turf — we lost out on a semi-final spot in the tie-breaker.

Neither can the surface be blamed for India's later disasters. We have been just a point away from every Olympic semi-final since 1984, except in 1992 and 2004. The turf was not the reason we missed the 1984 Olympic semi-finals by a whisker, neither for our draw against Poland at Sydney. Equally, our 1998 Asiad and 2003 Asia Cup successes were no flukes.

Our failures on the international stage were primarily due to a lack of leadership. The change in playing surface or the rule changes did contribute somewhat, but the moot point is that our leadership could not ensure we moved with the times.

Not converting and paying the penalty

From the mid 70s to early 90s, India lost in most tournaments because of penalty-corners. Our forwards earned them by the dozens but we missed someone like Prithipal Singh to cash in on them. Our teams swam against the current and drowned. Europe produced an unending stream of PC specialists but we were clueless about grooming our own. Instead, the IHF kept changing coaches.

The Gill years

No one did this more regularly and recklessly than the present president KPS Gill.

The super cop came to power riding on a promise of transparency, result-oriented and restoring the lost glory of Indian hockey. His initial two years were a refreshing change from the mire that Indian hockey had sunk into. He began the policy of cash incentives to players after a win. Winners of the Asia Cup and the Afro-Asian Games (in 2003) were given Rs. 1 lakh each. The players got comfortable lodgings and daily allowance.

But for the past decade, there is nothing called collective wisdom at the IHF. It's balance sheets have been questioned in court, the national championship has become a joke and the Federation Cup is never held. Except Karnataka and Mumbai, no state hockey associations (SHA) function. As a result, the supply lines snapped.

Hockey now survives on the benevolence of Government sports hostels. A month ago, the Andhra and Bombay associations wrote strong letters, but the IHF simply ignored them. So much so, that even though India got to host a World Cup (in 2010), the FIH has insisted that they would run the show!

The first IHF president to appoint himself selection committee chairman, Gill is being taken for a ride. National colours come cheap with every coach having his own stock of players. Defeat has become a way of life for the national team.

The ultimate irony would be, if India misses out on an Olympic spot at Beijing, marking the nadir for the sport. What Indian hockey needs is a Hayman, Tata or an Ashwini. What we have, sadly, is Gill.

First Published: Aug 27, 2007 03:52 IST