As the quarterfinals of the Women’s Hockey World Cup dawned on the sunny streets of the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the turf as hockey fans were getting into their element.
But these were Irish fans- the ones who had already outnumbered the Indian fans dressed up in their blue tees and enveloped by an infinite set of emotions.
For some, the very fact that the eves had made it to the quarterfinals was a colossal moment while for others, the nerves were still to settle with an eye out to the future of Indian hockey. However, both the parties totalled to a penurious number, bringing out the harsh realities of Indian hockey, especially one that built the spotlight around the women’s category.
Hockey, once the most-played sport in India’s pre-Independence era was thrown into the shadows by cricket, which rose to prominence in the 1970s and since then, the ‘grandfather’ of Indian sports has only managed to interest a select few. So the question arises, what will it take to ignite the lost spark in the path of reviving one of India’s biggest games?
“Twitter, Buzzfeed, and NDTV should show how good the ladies are while sports stars should also speak about the ladies’ performances,” says Bhavdeep Virdee, an ardent hockey fan who is himself a player with acres of experience under his belt.
He has played for over 27 years and currently represents Division 2 of England Hockey.
Trupti Kulkarni, another enthusiast and a massive follower of Indian hockey, who was also at the stadium added, ”PR Sreejesh, the Indian men’s team goalkeeper did his best to promote the sport and encourage girls. However, women’s hockey, in particular, needs a lot of momentum to be built around it so that people start following it,” she said.
Another supporter present at the stadium, Kuldeep Ahlawat, who has travelled to follow the Indian hockey team all over the globe brings out the harsh truth. “The reason for the lack of following starts with the management. Here, in London, even the Indian High Commission did not know that the team had arrived to take part in the tournament”.
Speaks a considerable lot about what’s missing doesn’t it? Well, it does not stop there.
Kuldeep also mentions the statistics for the tournament, claiming that the fan ratio was almost 1:10. Adding salt to the wound is the fact that the only Indian journalist who was present in London was BG Joshi, a statistician with the FIH.
“There is a lot of fan following for the men’s team. During the Champions Trophy, the stands had a lot of Indian supporters. However, that was not the case with the women’s team matches during the World Cup,” he adds.
Then again, Bhavdeep attributes the lack of knowledge circling the sport as the primary reason for the absence of support for the Indian eves, and Trupti does not beg to differ. “If a team does well, popularity will certainly follow,” claims Bhavdeep as he adds “Women’s hockey is slowly but steadily rising and the need to support them is paramount!”.
“More movies like Chak De India need to be made so that fans also consider hockey players as their role models which can be done only if they are portrayed in a big way,” Trupti said.
Both these statements underline the fact that Indian hockey is still in a transition stage but is not one to be overrun. The Rani-Rampal led side put in a string of strong performances in the qualifiers and even managed to grow in confidence after emerging with a draw against hosts England. That said, the women’s team still does not enjoy a massive fan base.
‘The Hockey Federation needs to pull up its socks’
“If one was to go back in time and study the post-effects of the 1983 Cricket World Cup win, the cricketers were given so much of screen time and were the centre of attraction. Similarly, hockey players also need to get the attention,” all this, to boost the confidence of the players and get more fans to watch hockey, Trupti claims.
“The first step to changing the outlook towards hockey is to improve the facilities, which should be taken to task from the local or grassroots level,” she adds to which Bhavdeep agrees. “The more kids that go to schools, they will also play some sort of sport for relaxation. An educated, confident player is 100 times better than a less educated player,” laying out the need to start from the beginner’s level.
Kuldeep pitches in with his thoughts as well and says, “Advertising about the game is one of the biggest needs. People need to know that the matches are happening so that they can come and support the team,” while also mentioning that the money put in to sponsor the teams should also be used to promote the sport.
Having admired the playing style of Jugraj Singh, one of India’s best drag-flick specialists, Bhavdeep believes that ex-players need to step up and assume coaching roles to dig out the hidden talent in the country. On the other hand, Trupti enjoys watching Indian Women’s hockey team goalkeeper Savita in action, based on the goalie’s calmness and approach to guarding the goal.
“Hockey India League for women – the need of the hour?”
Just like the Indian Premier League has served up some of the best Indian cricketing talents, the Hockey India League has given a platform for the best players in the country to showcase their skill – in the men’s category.
“It’s time to start the HIL for women too,” says Bhavdeep but also mentions that the effort has to be taken all the way from the smallest levels. “Setting up one turf in each district would be ideal. This can also prove to be a business opportunity for private establishments while linking schools to certain turfs can also get more children to try their hand at the game!” he says.
“I was lucky to play the role of the translator for both the men’s and women’s hockey team during the Rio Olympics, and each of them is an inspiration,” says a beaming Trupti who also speaks highly of the Indian women’s team. “Their dedication, eye on the prize, camaraderie, passion for the sport, for the country – is unmissable and bursting at the seams”.
The roaring cries to channelise the path of India hockey
“The money that the federation can put forth for hockey must be used to build more infrastructure and stadiums in India, while each school/region can be made a turf central,” is Trupti’s idea which goes almost in parallel to Bhavdeep’s opinions as well.
“Since the repair has to be taken from the grassroots, every district can be modelled in a way to accommodate turfs, which can help the children to embrace the sport and contribute to hockey’s growth,” he says.
“There is a need to arrange a lot more tournaments so that more talent is unearthed. More organisations should start supporting and funding the game to elevate it to a higher portal,” is the central idea from both Bhavdeep and Trupti.
“Indian Hockey can only go up from here.”
When it comes to envisioning the future of Indian hockey, both Trupti and Bhavdeep agree that Indian hockey can only find a rise in popularity from the current stage if more tournaments are contested, more people start following the game and if the initiative to spread the game starts from the smallest level. Kuldeep adds to this, “Indian hockey has the backing of the FIH since they believe that Indian hockey is producing a lot of money”, which can push the athletes to put their best foot forward.
The Women’s Hockey World Cup has come and gone. The Indian women’s team, ranked eighth in the world has made a mark with some exciting performances, including a thrilling one against Ireland until the penalty shootout played antagonist to their progress, yet again. Come the Asian Games, will Indian hockey witness a rise in followers? Only time will tell.
Also read: The sexist divide in sports broadcasting