The rain pelted down as Cyclone Ockhi unleashed its fury on Odisha in December 2017 whilst India played Olympic champions Argentina in the semifinal of the Hockey World League Finals.
Undeterred by the inclement weather, the locals turned up armed with umbrellas that threatened to be blown away by the gusty winds – but, stood their ground as Manpreet Singh and co. battled away in an effort to cancel out master drag-flicker Gonzalo Peillat’s PC goal.
The lone goal scored early in the second quarter was quite enough for the Los Leones to advance to the finals while the Indians beat a depleted German side to claim the bronze medal, with the visitors getting a round of applause for putting up a gallant show with no reserves on the bench.
The thronging crowds at the Kalinga Stadium have helped in no small measure to restore India’s erstwhile national game to its rightful place after the empty stands at the Delhi World Cup in 2010 caused much anguish.
It all started with the Champions Trophy in 2014 and Indian hockey has become synonymous with the Kalinga Stadium ever since the HWL in 2017 with Bhubaneswar playing host to the Men’s World Cup in 2018.
In an unprecedented move, the FIH awarded the 2023 World Cup to India with the Kalinga Stadium being the natural choice one more time.
Not surprisingly, India’s home matches of the FIH Men’s Pro League were also awarded to Bhubaneswar.
Whether by accident or design, the Indians were accorded the privilege to host the top three teams in world hockey.
Why then did empty stands greet the World and European champions Belgium as they took on India last Saturday?
While the rain may have played a part, sources in Bhubaneswar told The Bridge that the waning interest amongst the locals stems from a lack of understanding of what the Pro League is all about along with a sense of fatigue that emanates from too much hockey being played in Odisha.
Would it not have been better to allow cities like Bangalore and Lucknow to play host to at least one of India’s four home matches to generate interest around the country and ensure greater attendance?
Those familiar with the hockey scene in Odisha point out that the masses have been unable, thus far, to comprehend the format of the Pro League and appreciate the unique nuances such as a shootout following a drawn match in a contest that is neither a knock-out game nor a medal clash.
The fact that the Indians do not win a trophy even after a shootout win is bewildering to most – as is the failure to keep up with how the other teams in the Pro League are doing and how other matches around the world impact India.
The Bridge has learnt that HI is considering taking the Junior World Cup to a venue outside of Odisha which is an encouraging sign for starters.
Sources who have been present at the Kalinga Stadium for every tournament since 2017, reminisce about the massive crowds that graced the Hockey World League Finals and declare emphatically that not even the World Cup attracted similar numbers of true fans with many invitees occupying the seats.
The weekend double-header matches introduced by the FIH in the second edition of the Pro League – as compared to last year when each team played the other in a home and an away match was meant to reduce travel by half.
Whether or not the concept catches on will be interesting to see -particularly, when a team ends up with one win and a loss – or, one outright win and a shootout loss with fans left wondering whether or not celebrate the end result.
The Indians play Australia in less than two weeks’ time and New Zealand later on in their home matches of the Pro League 2020 – and the response generated may necessitate some serious soul searching as to whether future matches be held outside the precincts of the now-hallowed Kalinga Stadium.