Indian Hockey Waiting For Miracle To Survive
The Azlan Shah tournament in Malaysia proved, if proof was indeed needed, that Indian hockey has a long way to go before it can hope to regain its former glory and become a force in the international arena.
Winner in 2009 and joint winners with South Korea, India slumped to sixth place in the seven-nation tournament this time, much to the dismay of hockey fans at home and abroad and to the annoyance of International Hockey Federation (IHF).
The officials in Hockey India (HI) have been living on the diet of the last two Azlan Shah title wins. But these very officials, most of whom are always with the team on its tours abroad, have successfully managed to hide the fact that after Azlan Shah wins, Indian team’s performance has been very dismal.
In 2009 and 2010, the Indian squad was perhaps the most-travelled hockey team in the world. The team, as per the dictates and wishes of the officials, flew all over the planet except for South Pole and Antarctica at tax-payers’ money, but failed miserably in the World Cup, Commonwealth Games (held in Delhi) and Asian Games in China—where it could not qualify for the London Olympics. Though the players and coaches earned the flak, officials accompanying them earned (flying) mileage points.
In this edition of Azlan Shah Cup, which was won by Australia, team India did have its moments of glory when it held Australia to a draw and beat England and Malaysia, but otherwise it had little to show by way of its performance in the crucial matches. The defending champions lost to arch rivals Pakistan (1-3) and were disgraced by New Zealand (3-7) and then lost to Korea, to finish sixth.
The character of the game has changed dramatically. There is no offside rule and no team is assured of victory till the last minute because chances to score or equalise are there till the end. The Indians had their chances against the Pakistanis, the Kiwis and the Koreans but muffed them and paid the penalty.
The poor showing in Malaysia found its echo in the corridors of power in Delhi with Sports Minister Ajay Maken expressing concern over team’s performance. “We have two most important tournaments coming up—the Champions Trophy and the Olympic Qualifiers. And unless we qualify for the Olympics, our dream run to the Olympics would be over—as far as hockey is concerned,” Maken said.
According to Maken the ongoing dispute between HI and IHF is responsible for the present state of the game in India. “I personally tried to intervene and also met KPS Gill along with HI officials and tried to see if they can reach some kind of a common agreement, but unfortunately it could not happen at that time but we will try again,” he said.
It was not only the minister who expressed his concern about team’s performance. Former coaches and Olympians have also expressed their concern over hockey’s future in the country. Most of them have squarely blamed the officials who are running the game in the country for this disaster. Former national coach Rajinder Singh described the performance in Malaysia as “embarrassing”.
“Before the start of the tournament, the players were performing very well. But it is hard to understand what went wrong? Though India managed to take early leads, it failed to register victories. The team has not performed so badly ever, I think,” he said. He was of the view that the frequent change in captaincy was also affecting the team and the players are also confused about their respective roles.
Former Olympian Surinder Singh Sodhi, also held “lack of planning” in the team responsible for India’s current performance. Another former Olympian Vasudevan Bhaskaran held the game’s administrators responsible for the poor show but also added that team need fresh legs ahead of next year’s Olympic qualifiers. He said “We don’t have any dearth of talent but there is urgent need to nurture them. … People say that we missed midfielder Sardara Singh and defender Sandeep Singh in the Azlan Shah Cup, but that is not an excuse. We must have three or four players for each position. Why doesn’t the administration try to broaden the pool?”
He also questioned the process of selection of the players saying, “We must have proper set up and zone-based tournaments. Nobody knows how the players for national camps get selected—what are the criteria? There should be more players in the trials or it should be an open trial.” He also blamed the players for lack of consistency. “We played well in patches. We managed a draw against World champion Australia and then faltered in relatively easier games. Deep defence was pathetic,” Bhaskaran said.
Olympian Mohammad Shahid, was of the view that India should avoid over experimenting. Rattled by the dismal showing of the team and all round criticism, the HI officials are looking for a scapegoat and from all accounts they have found one in Coach Harendra Singh.
According to the sources, HI’s development committee is thinking over the removal of both coach and rest of the staff, which were involved in the preparations of this tournament. This committee, headed by former Olympian Pargat Singh, has the mandate to take decisions relevant to the matters concerning the coach. It is likely to seek the removal of Harendra and consider a foreign coach to continue the job.
Former skipper Dilip Tirkey, now a government observer, remarked: “I do feel the coach should have done more to motivate the players. Our performance till that (Pakistan) match was okay. After that defeat, we lost to New Zealand and South Korea in two very important matches. These are the sides we have done well against in the past. He suggested that in order to be successful it is necessary to keep a balance between both the attack and defence.”
However, there are experts who feel that it is HI’s whimsical attitude that led to this disaster. They question the exclusion of midfielder Sardar Singh and defender Sandeep Singh from the squad. HI Secretary Narinder Batra had said that they would take action against Sardar Singh and Sandeep Singh for playing in the European League.
Both these players, Sardara—part of the Asian All Stars—and Sandeep—the top scorer in the Asian Games—are key to India’s hockey campaign and Olympic qualification. Axing them from the national squad smacks of misplaced arrogance with no links to reality.
According to hockey writer Sandeep Mishra, HI should be happy that at least two players have been found suitable to play in the highly competitive European League. In the real world of sport, coaches are always looking forward to players playing in foreign leagues so that in tough competition, the players can pass on some tips when playing against European teams. Both these players are acquiring first-hand knowledge of European teams by playing in the Belgian League.
According to HI, the two players didn’t take a NOC from the federation. Yes, there are rules and they should be followed. “What is perplexing is how did the Belgian League accept two of India’s top players without an NOC from the Indian federation? Europeans are known to be stringent when it comes to rules. Or are these two players paying the price for being at the forefront when Nimbus announced the World Series Hockey with the IHF? It’s not HI’s loss. It’s Indian hockey’s loss.” Mishra said.
The HI is being backed by FIH, and now the international body is red faced at the Indian performance in Malaysia. FIH has found India as a very lucrative market. Last year’s World Cup in Delhi earned the games’ governing body more money than all the previous editions of the cup put together.
Having tasted blood the FIH bended the rules and allotted the Champions trophy to New Delhi, even though India had not qualified for it. As per the rules, top six teams in the world—including one winner of the Champions Challenge—qualifies for the prestigious tournament. India failed to qualify on both the counts, it is not among the top six nations nor did it qualify through Champions Challenge tournament. But FIH needs money and Indian market has enough of it, hence rules were given decent burial in the name of promotion of the game and the trophy will be held in New Delhi in December.
India has also been allotted Olympic Qualifier to be played in January next year. This tournament will also be held in New Delhi. FIH is desperate to see whether India will qualify for the London Olympics. It has realised that India’s absence in the games will affect the TV coverage. In 2008 Beijing Games, there was no Indian hockey team and it affected the TV sponsorship and coverage.
The modern-day sport is all driven by commerce, and hockey is no exception. FIH needs Indian hockey for its own interests. “I think, at present, all our focus should be to prepare the team which qualifies for the Olympics. It is going to be a litmus test—Indian hockey is so fragile that it cannot afford to suffer more blows,” former skipper Pargat Singh said. But given the situation and conditions Indian hockey has miles to go before it can regain its lost glory. Less hype and more substance will help the game.
By Harpal Singh Bedi