From whistle podu to goal podu: Chennai embraces the return of hockey — Reporter's diary
Hockey returned to Chennai after a long break, 5661 days to be precise, and the city welcomed it with open arms.
Chennai: There was excitement in the air as hockey returned to Chennai after 5661 days, and there were multiple reasons for it. Fans were excited about international hockey coming back after 15 years, they were excited to see their own Karthi Selvam play, and I was excited to cover another international tournament.
Coming to a city which is new in terms of language and culture can be overwhelming, especially if it's a first visit.
While the last few days have been sometimes overwhelming for me, the same can’t be said about hockey. The sport felt home among the cheers, shouts and attention during the 13 days of the tournament, and so did the all the visiting teams.
All the attacking moves drew equally loud cheers, the misses drew gasps, the saves drew equal applause and the goals drew celebration. When Malaysia defeated Pakistan 3-1 in the group stages, the intensity of support both teams got was something to behold.
The tone was set for Chennai ACT 2023 with a revamped stadium, big posters and graffiti across the city. The weather though was not ideal. It was not just some of the teams who complained about struggling to cope up with the humidity, even the in the media box it was a heated issue.
The daytime temperature here soared to 39 degrees on August 6, the day India trounced Malaysia 5-0 in the round-robin stage.
'Knowledgable' Chennai crowd gives hockey a home
The tournament started on an ominous note for the Indian team. Defiant Japan took the lead against the hosts in a match which was eventually a 1-1 draw. That day, the impartial Chennai crowd became more and more partisan as the India chased the game. Chants of ‘India, India’ rang around the stadium, something that became a template for whenever the team was down in the tournament after that, most notably in the final.
There were some scathing questions waiting for the coach and captain in the press conference after the Japan draw, most notably on the 16 missed penalty corners!
Fans were more understanding. "We know it was a bad day. Some days are like that where you can't put the ball in the goal,” a fan quipped on his way towards the exit.
It has been so long that Chennai have remained thirsty for some action like the 1-1 draw with Japan that those who were regulars as kids in the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium before have become parents now.
“I used to come to this stadium as a kid and as a teenager to watch India. The 2007 Asia Cup win is still fresh in my memory. I used to love Prabhjot Singh and how he used to beat defenders from the left flank,” said Robert, who was there with his 3-year-old son.
Returning hockey loyalists aside, some new fans also fell in love with the game. Simon, a college student who was watching the Indian team play in the flesh for the first time, remarked, “I loved how Harmanpreet generates so much power when it ends in the back of the net. I knew about hockey before but I watched international hockey for the first time and I really like it."
Pandemonium broke loose when local boy Karthi Selvam sounded the board with his first-ever goal in front of his own crowd and parents in attendance in the 5-0 win against Malaysia.
After the game, when Karthi’s family would come for a group photograph, Harmanpreet Singh bombed the photo shoot and embraced Karthi’s parents. It was a heartwarming moment in what was an otherwise hectic tournament.
More and more fans kept flocking to the stadium as the tournament went on and India climbed the points table.
The crescendo, of course, was the India-Pakistan match. While it may be true that this rivalry is just a shadow of the past and the Indian team is miles ahead on current form, the full stadium on a weekday and the buzz even before the match started proved that this will always remain a special rivalry on the pitch.
If there were any doubts about the semifinal, again against Japan, the Indian team quietly smashed them with a 5-0 win as Sumit scored one of the goals of the tournament.
An eye-opening final
As morning broke on the day of the final, reporters quickly became busy with their last few stories from the city, the operations staff became busy with their plans of dismantling everything within 24 hours, and fans woke up with the anticipation of watching their favourite team play for one last time.
As the match started, the crowd fell silent as Malaysia stunned India with some fine penalty corner conversions and took a 3-1 lead at half-time.
All sorts of predictions and analyses started flowing on social media, the press box looked visibly tense and the crowd seemed desperate.
India looked hungry for goals as they came out in the second half but Malaysia looked determined. It was one moment in the dying minutes of the third quarter when Malaysia made the mistake of giving India one chance. It was a window of opportunity that the hosts would not turn down.
Harmanpreet converted from the penalty spot, before Gurjant scored another seconds later to make it 3-3.
The Malaysians were stunned, the crowd was ecstatic and the press box looked relaxed as everyone returned to typing their copies furiously.
Journalists are expected to stay calm and impartial so it doesn't affect their work. But all of that changed when Akashdeep scored the winner. There were gasps, fist bumps, thumps on the table. India would be champions after all. For one moment, a roomful of reserved journalists became a pack of fans.
While the tournament ended in the most dramatic fashion, the 9,000-odd crowd in the stadium showed their class to appreciate Malaysia, who had been fantastic the whole tournament. It became clear to me why the Chennai crowd is known as ‘knowledgeable'.
It was a grand return for the sport of hockey to its former home. Will the romance continue if regular hockey is not played here?