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Return after exile: Chennai welcomes back hockey

Chennai will witness an international hockey match after 5,661 days as Asian Champions Trophy kicks off on 3rd August.

Return after exile: Chennai welcomes back hockey
Lost somewhere in history, Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium prepares to welcome hockey back to Chennai after 15 years. (PritishRaj/TheBridge)

Pritish Raj

Updated: 3 Aug 2023 7:26 AM GMT

Chennai: When you hear the word hockey, Odisha instantly pops up in the head given the infrastructure and the support to the sport in the past few years.

But what if you were told that Hockey is returning to one of its favourite homes in India, another state closer to the seashore?

A city known for beaches and some humidity, Chennai will welcome back the sport of hockey after a wait of 15 years longer than Lord Ram’s exile in Ramayana.

Situated in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood, Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium will welcome the sport back with coaches who have played here during the playing days.

The stadium which has seen some historic days in the past will have a new look and a new carbon-zero turf made up of sugarcane.

“Chennai always loved the sport of hockey. I remember people flocking up for the matches. People used to come here and try to get tickets and if they don’t get one, they will go on to nearby houses or trees to have a peek,” Sudarshan who owns a dhaba near the stadium told The Bridge.

One can figure out that he is not lying after entering the stadium which I surrounded by houses and trees on two sides.

Earlier known as the Corporation Stadium, it was constructed for the SAF games in 1995 and witnessed the likes of Pargat Singh grace the turf on the stadium's debut.

The stadium has hosted a host of international tournaments like the SAF Games (1995), Champions Trophy (1996 and 2005), India - Pakistan Hockey Series (1999), Asia Cup (2007), and India - Belgium Series (2008).

Apart from international tournaments, It has been home to the legendary MCC- Murugappa All India Gold Cup and innumerable Chennai Hockey Association matches.

Glorious past of Chennai

“Chennai was the unofficial centre of hockey and seen many glorious days. I have been part of so many iconic moments in this stadium,” Hockey legend V Baskaran reminisced about his days in the stadium.

V. Baskaran was one of the central figures in getting the artificial turf laid before the SAF Games in 1995.

"Crowd has been the most strong part of Chennai's hockey. Let me tell you, fencing broke during the 1995 SAF Games between India and Pakistan match," said Baskaran.

The nearby areas such as Thousand Lights, Vepery, Triplicane, Royapettah, and Mylapore had hockey teams.

The Hindu match report from the last time International hockey was played in Chennai. (Source: stick2hockey.com)

The hockey culture meant that both Asia Cup and Champions Trophy drew huge crowds with the crowd coming to witness the greatness of Shahbaz Ahmed (Pakistan), Teun de Nooijer (Netherlands), and their own Dhanraj Pillay.

While the glory of the sport is a thing of the past, the city of Chennai vanished from the map of hockey into the pages of history and oblivion.

"I have no idea what happened. We used to have people coming to see the matches and then come to our place to drink coffee or eat something," said Arun, who runs a small eatery near the Egmore Railway Station.

New hope on the horizon

It was 5661 days back when an international fixture kicked off in the stadium.

With a new turf, an international tournament, and the promise of more coming their way, the hockey fans in Tamil Nadu have a new hope.

And their hope is led by someone who was himself a spectator in the Stadium once.

The only player from the state of Tamil Nadu in the Indian national team, Karthi Selvam witnessed his idols like PR Sreejesh and SV Sunil play in front of him during the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup.

"Anybody will become a fan when they will witness the crowd and the environment of the stadium," said Vincent who was a kid when he used to come with his father during the 2007 Asia Cup.

"Trust me this stadium is just more than a sports ground. My father passed away in COVID-19, he would have been very happy had he been alive. He took me to matches during the 2007 Asia Cup," said Vincent.

"I remember VR Raghunath running towards the crowd to celebrate after India won the 2007 Asia Cup defeating South Korea. It was a mad house when the Indian team took the victory lap," recalled Vincent with a smile on his face.

As it stands, the victory lap by the players in 2007 remains the last time when the fans witnessed their beloved players.

In less than 24 hours, the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium will host another international tournament basking in its past glory.

As hockey returns to the shore of the Bay of Bengal, it will be worth witnessing if this is a passionate relationship between two lovers or just a passing fling!

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