It is the sport in which India has a glorious past. Sadly enough, it is also the sport where the fall has been equally precipitous. Eight Olympic gold medals (1928-36; 1948-56; 1964 and 1980) plus a silver (1960) and two bronze (1968 and 1972), besides a World Cup and two Asian Games gold medals. This is India’s tryst with hockey glory. In the past few decades, the script has read somewhat in reverse. The boycott-hit Moscow Olympics of 1980 was the last time India made it to the last four. They have never made it to the same stage in the World Cup after 1975.
The closest India has come to a medal was a fifth place finish in the World Cups in Mumbai in 1982 and in Sydney in 1994. In 2000, India was 45 seconds away from a semi-final berth before Poland dashed its hopes. Worse was to come when it failed to make the Olympics for the first time in 2008 and in 2012, finished last among 12 teams. Interestingly though, despite such dismal performances, India has not missed a single World Cup since its inception. Only four other countries have done that.
The current Indian side is led by Sardar Singh, one of the finest forwards in the game today. The striker, who fetched over Rs 50 lakh at the first-ever auction of hockey players before the inaugural Hockey India League in early 2012, has also played in Belgian and Dutch leagues and has an equal number of fans in both nations. Tournament after tournament, he has proven to be the standout player in the Indian team regardless of its final standing. A member of the 18-man selection for the International Hockey Federation’s (FIH) All-Star team in 2010, Sardar has been the Player of the Tournament at the 2010 and 2012 Azlan Shah Cup as well as the 2012 Summer Olympics Qualifier tournament.
Happy with the exposure the team got in its recent tour of the Netherlands, Sardar is still careful when it comes to making an assessment of the team’s preparedness for the World Cup. “Many times, we do well in training but that doesn’t reflect in our performance on the field,” he told reporters on his return from the European Tour. The 27-year-old Sardar also got cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar to take time out and speak to the players.
One of the problems that has beset Indian hockey for some time now is the frequent shuffling of coaches, which has left players confused about their games. Each coach has tried to impress upon the players his own style. While Jose Brasa tried to make Indians play in the European way, Michael Nobbs wanted them to emulate the Australians. Thankfully, the current Head coach Terry Walsh is a great admirer of Asian and Indian styles, having played here in the 1982 World Cup in Mumbai and before that, having seen India and Pakistan battle it out for the World Cup final in Malaysia in 1975. Walsh recognises that players have their own strengths and has gone back to the Indian way of playing hockey.
Ashok Kumar, son of hockey legend Dhyan Chand, feels that Indian players, though not lacking in talent, falter in consistency. “The players these days are not consistent,” he says. “It is not as if there is a dearth of talent. I have seen decent talent at the junior level in many parts of India. Given the right direction, they have the ability to make it big.”
Pargat Singh, who is the only player to have led the Indian team in two Olympic Games, says that Indians have “a habit of starting slow and slacking off a few minutes before the hooter. That is the time they concede goals”. However, the former captain is hopeful about the future. “Remember re-building is a slow process,” he says. “Just have patience and give them time.”
Australia and Germany are easily the favourites to win the current World Cup; the two teams have played each other in the last three finals. However, no one is writing off the Netherlands yet. The team, who played in three straight finals in 1990, 1994 and 1998, has always been a formidable force at home.
In the last six World Cups, Germany and the Netherlands have won twice each (Germany in 2002 and 2006 and the Netherlands in 1990 and 1998). Pakistan and Australia have both lifted the trophy once in 1994 and 2010, respectively. Ironically, Pakistan, which is also the most successful team in the World Cup with four wins (1971, 1978, 1982 and 1994), failed to qualify for the 2014 edition.
Meanwhile, the Indian team landed in the Netherlands almost a week in advance. That should give them time to acclimatise and get a good idea of the kind of turf they will be playing on. The European Tour experience should also come in handy.
Despite everything that ails Indian hockey, the FIH knows that India is the big market for the sport, and has accorded it the right to host the 2018 World Cup. India had also hosted the previous edition in 2010 in New Delhi. In addition, the Junior World Cup, which was held in India in 2013, will again come to the country in 2016. As will the Champions Trophy that is scheduled to take place in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, in late 2014. The World Hockey League and India’s own Hero Hockey India League have done their bit to boost interest in the sport.
With all this exposure and a renewed interest in the game, Indian hockey should hopefully be able to make it to podium finishes. It has to if it is to regain any of its past glory and reclaim its pride of place.