India’s Olympic hockey legacy in an unmatched feat spread across eight gold medals. But it’s also one that had gathered dust over decades and is littered with rare triumphs, occasional near misses, frustrating mediocrity and the nadir of wooden spoons — until the Tokyo Olympics arrived. The team in Tokyo, like many of its predecessors since 1980, had to blow that dust off history pages in search of inspiration. It happened, and the effort resulted in a podium finish — a bronze medal after a 41-year wait.
With that medal came an opportunity — an opportunity to become ruthless on the field, an opportunity to woo back the fans who were once again talking about hockey, an opportunity to manure the sport and help it grow like in the distant past, an opportunity to revive the legacy. But what has followed is over-experimentation and lack of transparency.
(India squad with Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik at the logo unveiling ceremony in build-up to the 2023 World Cup – HI Photo)
The Tokyo Olympics squad looked settled to create ripples at the Asian Games and the coming 2023 World Cup in Odisha. Those are the two events when India wants its hockey to hit peak form. That, of course, requires resting your first-team players and blooding exciting youngsters to help the core group evolve and grow with more options at hand.
But can that be done to the length where you risk losing that competitive edge? India topping the FIH Pro League charts currently can be used as an argument against that question. But does that allow to put reputation in Asia at stake, while fully knowing that the European nations treat the Pro League as international practice, while prioritizing their club and continental commitments?
To quote India’s badminton star Kidambi Srikanth in this context – “The win is for the country. People will say ‘India won the Thomas Cup’, not Srikanth won the Thomas Cup or anyone else. That in itself is a very special feeling,” he had said after India’s historic title triumph at the Thomas Cup in Bangkok earlier this month.
Of course, the dynamics of the two sports are entirely different. Badminton is an individual sport for most part, with an occasional team event on the circuit. But patriotism is a shared sentiment across sports when an athlete represents the country.
Tell the Netherlands or Belgium to field second-string teams in European Hockey Championships, and you risk being laughed at. Not that India needs to ape the European methods, but to send a team to Asia Cup with just two players who played at the Olympics — Simranjeet Singh and Birendra Lakra, with the latter reversing a decision to retire — is like reaching the breaking point of experimentation.
Yes, India don’t need to finish in the top four at Asia Cup to qualify for the World Cup next year because they have an automatic spot by virtue of being hosts, but that doesn’t in any way lessen the pride of representing India.
Of course, there is a process to coaching and building a team, and finding & grooming new talent. But the duration and stages of that need to be smartly planned because winning also plays a huge role in building confidence, while repeated failures may prove counter-productive.
On top of it, asking Graham Reid to wear three coaching hats is a decision straight out of the theater of the absurd. Hired as senior men’s team’s head coach, Reid has already served as the colts’ coach during the Junior World Cup last year, and now is set to accompany the Hockey 5’s team to the FIH event in Lausanne, as the first-team players wait in the camp before heading to Europe for the away-leg of the Pro League, watching their mates struggle in Jakarta.
India lost to Japan 5-2 at the ongoing Asia Cup in Indonesia and drew 1-1 with Pakistan, now requiring a big win over Indonesia and favourable results elsewhere to make the cut for the knockout stage. They may still get through and even win the tournament, but that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that India have now lost to Japan in their last two games.
The Japanese team had defeated India 5-3 in the semifinals of the Asian Champions Trophy as well in Dhaka, where India rested several first-team players and had to settle for a bronze.
“For most European teams, there are only a few important tournaments: the Olympics, the World Cup, the European Championships and lastly, the Pro League,” said Ernst Baart, senior hockey journalist from the Netherlands. “So the only international games where they would really switch up their team would be the occasional Pro League game.”
Imagine the situation of Rupinder Pal Singh, who, like Lakra and SV Sunil playing the Asia Cup, was allegedly called back from retirement to be part of the Commonwealth Games team coached by Sardar Singh, so that the first-team can prepare for the more important Asian Games. But the Asiad was postponed because of the worsening Covid-19 situation in China, and in a make-shift arrangement, Sardar was announced coach of the Asia Cup team with Rupinder as captain.
(SV Sunil in action during India’s match at the 2022 Asia Cup – Photo: Hockey India)
But Rupinder got injured and had to be pulled out of the Asia Cup squad, with now very little chance of making it to the CWG team, where most likely the main team will feature as they don’t have the Asian Games to play this year. Where does that leave an injured Rupinder as well as Sunil and Lakra, once they return from the Asia Cup?
Baart, however, doesn’t disagree with India’s methods.
“I do understand India experimenting a bit more often and more drastically with their selection at these lesser events. With no more HIL and no real domestic league, there are not enough opportunities to test young talents at a level above their age. So I guess it makes sense to use these events for this,” said Baart.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY AS SOME QUESTIONS REMAIN UNANSWERED
The rap on Hockey India’s (HI) knuckles by the Delhi High Court has once again brought to light the fact that not all is right within the Hockey India administration.
The Delhi HC on Wednesday appointed a three-member Committee of Administrations (CoA) to run the affairs of the federation. The court observed that HI has violated the provisions of the sports code, 2011.
The court announced its decision while hearing the petition filed by Aslam Sher Khan, who was part of India’s 1975 World Cup-winning squad. He had alleged that HI violated the sports code by creating posts like ‘life member’, ‘life president’ and ‘CEO’.
But beyond the administrative block of Hockey India, queries forwarded to the top brass of the federation via it’s media department have gone unanswered for quite some time now, while some of the moves, like appointing Amit Rohidas as the skipper, have been hidden behind the alibi of ‘rotating captains’. That, though, has not been officially revealed by the federation.
Earlier, the captain’s arm-band used to be rotated within a tournament, but for a stretch of few tournaments now, Rohidas has been named the captain, replacing Manpreet Singh. However, the reason has not been laid out. Not that it’s obligatory for Hockey India to do so, but silence over such decisions only adds to lack of transparency.
Also it’s been a while since the chief national coaches of men’s and women’s teams — Graham Reid and Janneke Schopman respectively — have been heard other than in quotes embedded in HI press releases or in obligatory appearances during live streaming of tournaments.
Have they been gagged? Nobody knows.
(Coach Graham Reid taking a selfie in the team bus after India won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics – Twitter Photo)
The affairs of Hockey India are for now in the hands of HC-appointed CoA, comprising former Supreme Court judge AR Dave, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi and former India captain Zafar Iqbal.
But their job will more be how the federation works and not necessarily how the team is run. The only hope is that the level of transparency improves and national pride and consistent success at tournaments is given precedence over over-experimentation.