We stand at the cusp of a beautiful thing happening in Indian Hockey at present. All of us hold witnesses, we have all been a part of this magnificent journey which has been made up of several prominent moments all leading up to this point in time. There will come more prominent achievements for Indian Hockey for sure. But when we celebrate those in the future, we can look back at December in 2018 and marvel at the fact that this country- once feared among the international Hockey circuit, had hosted the Hockey World Cup. And what’s more – we may just reach the semifinals of one of the biggest international Hockey tournaments for the first time in 38 years.
For those of you who may not know me, I had the humble privilege of representing my country on this very platform a total of three times.
There are four players in all of India’s Hockey fraternity who have been a part of the National squad all the three times that India has clinched a World Cup medal. We won Bronze in 1971, the inaugural edition, Silver in 1973 and ultimately topped it off with Gold in 1975 which had been long coming for the Indian side. Along with my teammates Ajit Pal Singh, Ashok Kumar, and Michael Kindo, we had the good fortune to form a nucleus along with our other teammates at a time that you might effectively term as when Indian Hockey was still at its peak. While in 1971 we were new entrants to the Indian team – having played internationally for just two years prior to that, the subsequent editions of the tournament saw us grow into our roles more.
It has been 43 years since that glory has eluded the Indian Hockey team. The only respectable positions we registered in the tournament after that was once in 1982 – when we finished fifth again in front of a home ground when the World Cup was held in Bombay – and in 1978 when the team finished sixth. Keeping this unimpressive record in mind, we may study the present squad playing in the 2018 Men’s Hockey World Cup and, at least try to understand how the scenario has changed for Indian Hockey over the years and how the National squad has been consequently affected.
The first week that the Hockey World Cup began in Bhubaneshwar, I along with other members of the 1975 World Cup winning team were present at the venue where the State Government and Hockey India felicitated us. Firstly, due credit must be given to the Government of Odisha who has set an example for the rest of the country by sponsoring the National teams of a sport for the next five years. The fervor and fever of Hockey are present in every aspect of daily life within the city of Bhubaneswar and the state as a whole. The kind of infrastructure the state has provided for the training and the matches, in general, is exemplary. Hosting a World Cup, after all, is quite a big deal and there can be no question that the State has done justice to the massive responsibility it chose to undertake.
If you still want further proof that a massive and ardent fan following can indeed impact performance, let me give you a little snippet of something I experienced at the 1973 World Cup.
I consider that Silver medal quite an unlucky one because, even today, I believe we deserved Gold. We were leading Holland by 2 goals to nil when rain interrupted the game and that affected performances on both sides. While it broke our momentum, it also provided the Dutch with a monumental task of pulling back two goals in changed weather conditions. Ultimately, the match ended with a tie-break that went in their favor and the Silver medal, which should have been theirs, was awarded to us.
Even today, I still maintain that if we lost from that advantageous position, it was because the home crowd at the Wagener Stadium in the Netherlands stood by their team and cheered them on, right until the dying seconds of the match. That’s how massive a role a dedicated support system plays.
We had won under similarly difficult conditions when we played Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur in the semifinals of the 1975 edition, and I was lucky to have scored the winning goal in that match. In Bhubaneswar, now, we can see the same thing happening and working in favor of the Indian team.
Secondly, we have seen a resurgence of the sport among the general Indian consciousness, and a number of international outings in the recent past has contributed to this continued interest in the workings of the team. Add that to the fact that the Hockey India League and its franchise-based system has helped in creating a vast pool of dedicated fans for the general good of the game and we see the general improvement in the administrative handling of Indian hockey as well over the last few years. Credit here must be given to Hockey India whose deft management of matters along with an ability to adapt to the changing times have steered the game in the right direction overall.
The preparation and exposure that this present team has been given are unparalleled. The build-up to this tournament has ensured that a lot of positive energy is going around within the team which has otherwise been plagued over this past year with obstacles like the change of a coach or the dropping and retirement of key members of the team at essential junctures.
Of course, given the length of my association with the sport, I must ponder upon how far we have come since the time I was still an active player. Little kinks within the team and the management are always part and parcel of every sport — the critical thing to remember that no problem is without a solution.
During our time, the skill and the stick-work of players used to be the factors in focus. Today, hockey is all about which team has the power at any given moment during a game. A lot of momentum and long passes are required today, but the basic perception of the game has not changed in India till date. We still have this strategy where our main priority is to win a penalty corner and only then score a goal. One of the main reasons for this general lack of evolution can be that, as a country, we still do not have enough infrastructure to nurture the grassroots. The paucity of astroturfs and coaches who can teach modern hockey to beginners does make a lot of difference to how the game is played at the elite level. If the basic instinct of players is not honed at the right time, it becomes difficult for coaches at the elite level to teach them to adapt to internationally adopted techniques.
After our victory at the 1980 Moscow Olympics until about the year 2008 – this is a period where you arguably describe India as struggling to find a foothold in major international tournaments.
2008 was the most significant setback because the Men’s team even failed to qualify for the Olympics. Then in 2012, we lost all five of our Olympic matches. This was a time when, administratively and technically, Indian Hockey was going through one of its worst phases, and the lack of money in the sport did not provide any incentive for players even to consider pursuing it as a serious career. A lot of foreign coaches were invited, and they have undoubtedly contributed a lot of positive factors, but ultimately, for better understanding and communication, the charge of the senior team has been given to Harendra Singh once again- after nine long years of dabbling with foreign mentors. His contribution as the coach of the Junior Indian team that won the world cup is yet another major landmark for the sport and, if you notice, there are seven players from that team currently playing in the Senior World Cup.
We have seen such towering figures who have inspired an entire generation of Hockey players. The closes figure that comes to mind is my own coach Balbir Singh Sr whose charisma and authority played a considerable role in the team effort that ultimately resulted in the gold in 1975. He was singularly in charge of the team back then, the responsibility of which had been given by the Punjab Government.
This year when we were all felicitated at the Kalinga Stadium, his presence was sorely missed. But my teammates and I made sure to motivate the National squad in his stead- the way we felt he would had he been there. We told the boys that if we could do it, they could do.
They are young. They are at the cusp of history, and they have made an entire nation hope with the amount they have improved over a concise period. They must not let the enormity of what they represent overwhelm them.
They only need to play the best hockey of their lives. The rest will all fall into place.