Friday, March 9, 2012

Reflections on Indian Hockey: March 9, 2012

Sorry for the extended break.

Now that more than ten days has passed by from the date the Indian men sealed their entry to the Olympic Games, and most of the media rejoicing has winded down, it is time for a quiet reflection on the state-of-affairs of the game in India today. First of all,

1) Needless Rejoicing: While many newspapers seem to be elated with the Indian win over causes ranging from: i) "We have re-entered the elite stage of Olympics participation after the Santiago debacle of four years back", to ii) "Indian hockey has turned a corner", to iii) "Let's turn our due attention to hockey now that the cricket team is not doing that great", to iv) "I am showing my displeasure at cricket for cornering all the moneys, all the attention, and all the emotions by turning focus to hockey", and more. Needless to say, facts point elsewhere on whether one has to rejoice or not.

Fact 1: India lost out in the finals at Santiago to Britain four years back, yes, true. But the facts behind the loss have not been clearly laid out YET. Mirroring the current edition, India started off the tournament with a bang beating Russia 8-0, followed by 7-3 and 18-1 wins against Austria and Mexico (rank minnows all of them) before losing a close game against Britain 3-2 with the winning goal scored in the 69-th minute by Rob Moore (a standard Indian technique -- hopefully -- of old where goals were conceded in the last few minutes of play). India rounded off the regulation games with a 4-1 win over Chile. In the final classification match-up, Indians slipped up badly to lose 2-0 and the road to Beijing ended in a whimper. While many excuses can be found for the Santiago meltdown and not everything has been said on what exactly transpired on the day before the Finals against Britain (Linky), the most pertinent one still remains the poor team selection and the remarkable nepotism that still goes unnoticed to this day in selection matters, and the qualifying format which disallows even one bad day at the office. Yet the 2008 Indian team was not too bad as the uninformed media made it by calls of National Shame this and that.

Fact 2: That brings me to the point that Indian hockey was never too bad to turn a corner so-to-speak. Yes, it has had its share of weaknesses ranging from poor starts to tournaments (even against minnows and no-namers) to poor finishes with dwindling levels of enthusiasm where penalty corners/strokes/goals were/are conceded essentially at random. While Pakistan and South Korea would fight it out for the bronze medals, the Indian team would look and sound devastated and miss even the few points that would have pulled them out of the FIH ranking rut. Most of these problems were/are attributable to poor overall fitness levels further pushed to a corner by an even poorer understanding of sports nutrition and scientific recovery techniques, a rather belated strategic understanding of the fast-changing rules of the game and how new opportunities are manufactured out of small pushes, and a lack of sports psychologist/mental trainer that was often the maxime causa behind catastrophic meltdowns, ultimate disasters and needless heartbreaks.

Fact 3: Qualifying for the Olympics is no big deal. Even with the standard that is Indian hockey of the post-64 era. Even with the astroturf, even today, even this very second with all the machinations that FIH heaps on Indian (and Asian) hockey. As someone wisely said, it is not the destination, it is the bloody journey. The state of Indian hockey is not to be seen only in terms of tournament performances, but generally in terms of where the team stands in terms of prowess, aura, fame, standing in the comity of hockey playing nations, oomph, pride and of course in terms of performance on the field. To rejoice at small happinesses shows the mindset of the poorly informed who have not been regaled with the tales of Jaipal Singh Munda's honor uber alles, Richard Allen's swats, Balbir Singh's pomposity, Ashok Kumar's winning goal, and more. Yes, more. There is more to Indian hockey that is unknown than people have the capacity to absorb and beam.

Fact 4: Even specific to the Olympic Qualifier at Delhi, it must have been more of a surprise to see the Indian team shown the door than otherwise. For example, India has had a formidable record against Canada even within the last ten years. The last time India and Canada had locked horns in 2009, India had whipped Canada 6-0 in a 7-test away series (Linky). Despite the Sydney meltdown against Poland where a semifinal clash was missed by a whisker, the last time India had met Poland in the 2011 Champions Challenge, it was a 7-0 whitewash (Linky).

Fact 5: Cricket and hockey are not in a zero-sum fight for moneys or attention. At the end of the day, in terms of national identity matters (both historical as well as current), first football and then hockey and of late, cricket have played their due roles. Despite various systemic problems that deserve attention, most sports in India have generated role models worthy of emulation and have played the grease in soothing the different regional and communitarian tendencies. Hockey can perfectly be labeled the "minority sport" for being the succor and hope (in order of legacy) for Anglo-Indians, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, people who fall under the Scheduled Tribes category, people from the Northeast of India and so on. While cricket's emancipating role is still questionable, even this game has been opening up these days to audiences unreached so far. Both cricket and hockey can and should co-exist side-by-side and the ultimate schadenfreude of rejoicing at the cricket team's dismal performance over the hockey team's rebounding fortunes make no sense.

All that said, let us look at some of the issues that not many mediamen/women have talked of openly so far.

2) Compare and Contrast: In 2011, India played four tournaments -- the Azlan Shah Cup where India is one of the regular visitors (finishing a tame sixth losing to South Korea), the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy at Ordos where we placed first, a four team event in Australia with Pakistan and Australia-A as the other teams where we ended up rock-bottom, and the Champions Challenge that was conveniently shifted out of India by FIH on the pretext of the HI-IHF administrative tussle (more later) where we lost the finals to Belgium. In all, India's overall record in 2011 was 23 played, 8 won, 7 lost, 8 drawn, 67 goals scored and 61 conceded. In 2010, India played six tournaments including the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games, the World Cup and the SAF Games. In addition, India also appeared in bilateral series with Belgium, France, and Netherlands. Overall, the 2010 record was 40-20-11-9-153-99. Such a drop in participation in international outings in the pre-Olympics year is sheer madness and someone at the HI board should take the blame for this.

Incidentally, in 2011, 9th ranked Argentina's record was 15-10-4-1-56-25. 8th ranked Pakistan's record was 48-24-8-16-110-112 (yes, more than twice the games India played!) whereas for 7th ranked New Zealand, it was 28-9-14-5-68-71. For the top-ranked Australian team, while the senior team played in the Champions Trophy, the Oceania Cup, the four team event in Australia, a European tour to Netherlands, Spain and a five nation challenge in France, and the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, the Australian under-21 team played in the Oceania Pacific Cup, the Johor Cup, and the four team event in Australia.

All this comparison and contrasting business hides one main fact that I would like to highlight: New Zealand is the new Britain of Santiago. When the British team beat India at the Santiago qualifiers in 2008, that performance came from behind an extraordinary glut of participation in elite hockey events such as the Champions Trophy 2007 event where they were an invitee without any real claim to the event (Linky). The story behind this bizarreness has not been told clearly so far. With Pakistan (the intended host of the 2007 event) suffering from too many internal security problems, the FIH decided to shift the event to Malaysia. There again, while India bidded to host the event, it was duly awarded to Malaysia because of the ruse of visa problems that Pakistani players could suffer from. Noone called the pony on this trick because only with the 2010 World Cup in Delhi did we see that the Government of India would not expressly deny visas to players, even Pakistani players without a case that is gold standard from a legal eagle point. In any case, PHF complained that the Pakistan team should have received the exposure their team would have had they hosted the event and hence, the FIH decided to accommodate Pakistan as an additional participant at the KL edition. To make it an even number and a full pool (go figure the logic for that argument!), the highest ranked at that point (was it?!) British team was invited as the eighth participant (Linky).

Compare that with the event being shifted out of India in 2011 in the last minute to New Zealand due to the scuffle between HI and IHF. India not only did not get compensated by virtue of precedent, but New Zealand benefited as the host. As the winner of the previous Champions Challenge (with the winning goal coming in the last five minutes in a flurry of questionable refereeing -- Linky), New Zealand had been a participant at the 2010 Champions Trophy in Germany. Back to 2011, in addition, two invitational spots were bestowed to Pakistan and South Korea. A six team event had again become an eight team event again, but with the host booted out not due to safety issues, but politics and sponsorship money issues (which had come into question due to the sub-judice nature of the matter at that point). In addition, the FIH played benefactor to other Asian teams that did nt deserve to be in the Champions Trophy in the first place because of the need to avoid complaints of pure bias against Asian teams. Needless to say, New Zealand's star has been rising in international hockey with their team ranked at an all-time high of 7th and beating Australia for the first time since 1988 in 2011. All this illustrates the Malcolm Gladwell maxim: performance is not only innate smartness or talent, but can also be replicated with practice (either that practice is earned or awarded in a collusory manner is immaterial).

3) Put the House in Order: Any de facto official sporting body that claims to run the game cannot be divested of such criminal negligence as not arguing in terms of precedence. Then there is the Court of Arbitration in Sport -- an avenue that Indian associations have taken to very easily these days in the light of the flurry of doping catches in athletics and weightlifting. The fact that HI was cahoots with FIH till the conduct of the 2010 World Cup (and beyond) only makes this departure from arguing for what benefits the team the most a serious anomaly that can never be excused. In fact, a sporting body such as HI that repeatedly puts its own interest ahead of the players' interest who play the game deserves even lesser mercy. On top of that, if such deeds as double-speak (in collusion with the FIH) happen on the World Series Hockey (WSH) event which would have financially benefitted the players, it deserves absolutely no sympathies. On WSH, from Linky
Sources said that the sports ministry is said to have played a key role in the negotiations and has told HI to ensure that it does not pressurise players who intend to take part in the event after the qualifiers.
When the HI called for a national camp immediately after the Qualifier win citing the Long Term Development Plan which had initially mentioned a camp from March 13, it can only be seen as yet another exhibit in the long plan to pull the rug from beneath the floor of WSH-IHF-Nimbus Television-players association, all to please FIH which has its own reasons to avoid IHF like a plague, most of which have to do with financial dealings rather than real care for Indian hockey. In any case, the last has not been said on this matter by the FIH and as S. Thyagarajan points out, the FIH would do well to stop acting like the overlords of hockey in India when they dont act as such overlords in Europe especially with the Eurohockey and indoor hockey leagues (Linky). And it is time that HI called the bluff on FIH for shaming them endlessly in a process that befits a school kid with a playful attitude.

4) Enough Rhetoric: But more than this criminal negligence rhetoric, focus should be on what events the Indian team will take part in the run-up to the London games. For top-ranked Australia, the dice is already loaded when they take on Netherlands and Argentina in a home invitational event in February, China and Japan in bilateral series in March, a European tour and test event scheduled for April-May, and a bilateral series with New Zealand in June leading to the Olympic Games. From what has been heard from the Long Term Development Plan, invitations have been received from Lahore and Santander (Spain) to take part in four nation events. The test event in London has also invited India and there is always the Azlan Shah Cup. Of these, the event in Lahore is saddled with the India-Pakistan conundrum and as much as I would like to see the hockey team go there (because we badly badly need the practice --- in contrast to any other sporting visits to Pakistan), this trip is too complicated at this stage. While it has an "in-principle" blessing from the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, it is also going to need the blessings of the Ministry of External Affairs, Cabinet Committee on Security, the Prime Minister's Office, key members of the Parliament and even the BCCI for wider ramifications on what such a trip would mean for the more eye-catching Indian cricket team tour. Would that signal the final nail in the coffin of the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks "We will be revenged" showdown? Would that signal an all-round thaw in relations with Pakistan with the return of some bonhomie between elites that run the power circles at both sides? Would that be a one-off event and not a precedent? Would life still be ok if any further attacks happen on sporting teams to Pakistan? Too many questions, too many contenders and too few answers. Which is why HI should focus on the trip to Santander and may be even a wider Euro tour to shore up the dour Indian defence. And yes, the Indian defence is the shakiest of the lot. Will HI clean up its act and get going, your call is as good as mine.

5) What happened elsewhere: While WSH has been sputtering along, some other on-field and off-field incidents have left a sweet and sour taste in everyone who can observe's mouth. While the initial matches of the Olympic Qualifier were played before empty stands, the Finals was a riot act with the gates open to all and sundry. The essential reason: cheap tickets for the Finals in response to a poor showing for the expensive tickets of the first few days. Delhi has been a blessing in disguise as a sporting crowd for not only football matters (Dr. Ambedkar Stadium is always jampacked, and so is Major Dhyan Chand Stadium). The only one left behind is Feroze Shah Kotla and that is despite the Najafgarh man's exploits. The only explanation I can think of is that Delhi's Northeast/Bengali/Punjabi/illegal Bangladeshi population is growing at a far higher rate than the native residents of Delhi. Well, I could be wrong.

With Arjun Halappa and Rajpal Singh shown the final door, and they joining the long-since-departed Prabhjyot Singh who was the man-of-the-moment under Jose Brasa and the more recently departed "Michael-Chang-of-Indian-hockey" Dhananjay Mahadhik, the last could be close on the ring-a-ring-a-roses captaincy of the Jose Brasa era that was famously witnessed in the Canada tour of 2009. If Arjun Halappa and Rajpal Singh cannot make the top-48 of Indian hockey, someone has got to be snorting some real powerful stuff. There is only one true explanation: power politics, disciplinary action, and unrequited apologies.

That said, the top-48 of the squad are not the moral custodians of hockey talent in India. As coach Harendra Singh said recently, the WSH is throwing up new talent than the government-appointed Selection Committee of HI can see. One notable talent is the son of Vasudevan Bhaskaran, Laxman Karan. Sadly, like Dhananjay Mahadhik of the bygone era, Laxman Karan will get the eye-in very late, if at all. May be an ICL-like truce can be had down the line for hockey? May be. But, in any case, more players are streaming from the tribal belt of Orissa and Jharkhand and a big line-up of Manipuri players are also lurching in the limelite. Truly, Chinglensana Singh has opened up the Manipur sporting world to hockey after boxing, football and archery took their due shares. Having a foreign-born coach is no solution to India's hockey unending woes. An ideal coach is often not a former player, but when a former player becomes an ideal coach, it signals an opportunity that should be taken with both hands. Ramandeep Singh, Mohammed Riaz, Jude Felix, Dilip Tirkey, Jugraj Singh, AB Subbiah -- the coterie that is pushing up the Harendra Singh's of old is a nice sweet taste amidst the cacophony of yobs that yak more than they can deliver.

6) And finally: If there is one BIG problem that needs attention today, it is the administrative stalemate that is caused by the permanent spat of Hockey India with the other defunct body in the running of affairs -- the Indian Hockey Federation. Much of India's woes in hockey will dissolve itself if the administrative apparatus is efficient, transparent and accountable -- a far-cry from what it is now.

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