Sunday, June 3, 2012

What has been left unsaid -- Hockey update (June 3, 2012)

Way too many things to say and too little time to manufacture a coherent piece, so in any case, here we go! Winning the bronze at Azlan was fine, and not a great reflection of what the current team is capable of. Some observations connecting the various dots:

1) As I pointed out earlier, New Zealand is the new England of the 2008 Olympic Games. They have peaked in time for the London Games much aided by their practice on the blue turf, the exposure to top events and teams courtesy of FIH's shenanigans that saw the CT shifted to NZ, and by importing Australian trainers, physios and nutritionists. The mauling we received in the first game against the Kiwis was the double impact of our standard issue first game behavior in any serious event, only to be topped by the administrators' own shenanigans. The last Azlan saw a 7-1 mauling against the same rivals and the practice game before the London test event (VISA international) saw a 12-1 defeat against the Australians.

2) Pointing out the precise reason(s) for this woe (of why the Indian team comes up predictably too short in the opening game) will take us into polemics and whine profiles on a different plane. Suffice it to say that, the team always ends up jaded after a long and often circuitous trip that has to be taken on the national carrier for refund purposes (Note to MSYA and Shri Maken, not like they will notice it anyway). Such constraints are true with American refunding efforts too -- albeit with many choices of carriers around, but not so for the Australian, Kiwi or British players where the cheapest airfare/shortest time rule is common in most scientific/government refund efforts (I know!!). For example, a trip from anywhere in India to Kuala Lumpur that should take no more than 5-6 hours was a 22 hour jamboree on the national carrier from Pune for the national team (Linky). Instead of the three days of pre-event practice originally envisioned, the team could eke out no more than two and most of this was spent getting used to the turf and the hot-humid Ipoh weather, for which Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium would have provided the best trailer, not to mention the huge number of MAA-KL flights. In the same vein, the Black sticks team arrived in Ipoh on May 18, a good 6 days before the event and had practice games against both the Malaysian and English teams (Linky). The Pakistani team left on May 18 too (Linky) and it showed in the way they handed the Argentinians their first defeat even though the Pakistanis had never practiced on the blue turf before. In matches where the differences in quality between the two sides are small, all that takes for a disaster to visit one team are these small differences.

3) The fact that Pune in itself was the destination for the training camp was an accident waiting to happen. The blue turf at the SAI facility in Bangalore was so poor that the coaching staff feared serious injuries and shifted the practice to Pune, which has no blue turf. With the team practice limited to weights and fitness regimes and hypoxia training, Pune was a much better bet than Bangalore could have been. The turf at Ludhiana which was ready just in time before the Azlan trip could serve as the alternate training destination, but the mountain of bureaucracy has to move to ensure the shift from the Balewadi Sports Complex. This is seriously not how a team prepares its journey to the biggest test in hockey every four years. All this said, the farce across the border in Pakistan will make the Indian administrators look like statesmen.

4) The Pakistani team has no blue turf to practice, and the saga of laying a blue turf in Pakistan is a traumatic one (Linky 1, Linky 2, Linky 3). The Azlan was the first event where the Pakistanis practiced on the blue turf. And to top that, the players who took part in the WSH event were kicked out with the PHF trying to milk money from these players in the form of fines (Linky). For being the joint top scorer at WSH for which he gained < INR 50 lakhs, Imran Warsi will have to pay the PHF a fine of Pak Rs 2.5 crore. The fine amounts make no sense as some of the players like Imran did not even have contractual obligations with PHF that they broke. In fact, quite the opposite, Zeeshan Ashraf could not get a permanent job even after winning the gold medal at the 2010 Asian games (Linky).

Further, with the Dutch coach Michel van den Heuvel kicked out (Linky) and with a new coach in the form of Akhtar Rasool, the PHF President Qasim Zia has pulled a new rabbit out of his magic hat to wear the thorny hat in the aftermath of what shall be labeled as the London disaster. While noone needs to empathize with the Pakistani team, at least to the administrators' pragmatism, the team shall depart to England to train on one of the blue turfs after Azlan (Linky). Here are two cents of unsolicited advise to the Pakistanis: Quit the European style of running Total hockey and get back to the subcontinental version of zonal play. Kalimullah, Hassan Sardar, Samiullah, etc., played crystal clear subcontenintal hockey, go figure. And like I have a cookie jar where I keep dropping in an occasional 100 Rupee note to drop off at the Kapaleeswarar temple when the current Indian administrative apparatus (both HI and IHF) vanishes from Planet earth, please start one to send off the likes of Qasim Zia and Asif Bajwa.

5) That said, India beat England for the first time in four attempts. A 4-2 and a 2-1 loss at the London test event followed by a 3-2 loss in the preliminary stage only affirms what Coach Mike Nobbs has been saying all along: "we need to work it out with higher ranked teams to get better." Yes, that is the precise strategy used by the English in their lead-up to the 2008 Santiago climb and what has been practiced by the Kiwis in the current spurt in activity. There are a few other core essentials needed to climb the ladder though like a stable core of team-mates over the years. Both the Kiwi and the English teams have been having a core around which a team has been formed, but the Indian team has been a ring-a-ring-a roses only beaten in this category by the Pakistanis (Linky). Whoever fits the fancy AND is in the good books of the HI apparatus finds his way into the team while the others get shunted out. Prabhjot Singh, Rajpal Singh, Arjun Halappa, Diwakar Ram, Dhananjay Mahadhik, Baljeet Singh -- these are names of stars and heroes from the bygone era, not to mention the whole-scale up-turn in the Junior ranks where the WSH star, Gurjinder Singh, Dewinder Walmiki and many many others were thrown out to make way for a new junior team with a brand new junior coach (Baljeet Singh over Mukesh Kumar). Thus, while India have regularly beaten the NZ bunch (2 won, 2 drawn in the 2009 tour to NZ, did not face each other in either the Commonwealth or World Cup events, a win at Rockingham and a massive loss at Azlan in 2011, etc.), NZ has inched past India with their CT background and regular facing of the European teams.

6) Just to give an opposite perspective on the ring-a-ring-a roses, quite remarkable has been the climb of Malaysia's Faisal Saari. Only a month back, he was donning the Junior team to the title at the Asian junior event (Linky). And now, he has been named to the Azlan All Star XI (Linky). Every team has fast-tracked their juniors to the senior team except ...., and Malaysia has been no exception. The Pakistani junior team at KL had six players who came back to Ipoh. In the 2008 Azlan, a schoolboy named Nick Wilson made his way to the Black Sticks team (Linky 1, Linky 2) and as of now, he is a veteran of 100+ games and all of 21 years old. How many from the third-ranked Junior Indian team could make it to the main team, but for one Amit Rohidas as a standby? All this begs the question, why are we like this onlee?! Well, if I had an answer, I would nt be posing the question.

7) Very soon, the Olympics bound team travels to Santander, Spain to practice on the blue turf (hopefully!) and one hopes that unlike the trip made under Jose Brasa's tenure, this is not another 100 hour trip. One also hopes that the blue turf at the Pirthipal Hockey Stadium at the Punjab Agricultural University campus is up to the mark and brings back the trip down memory lane when the Ajitpal Singh led Indian team practiced in Punjab before the WC triumph at KL in 1975. Well, a bronze is not too far off and thats been the clarion call from here. In that regard, the first match is against the Dutch, and all the matches are in the afternoon to evening time-frame unlike the Australians who have three early morning (8:30 AM) starts. One hopes that the Indian team does nt bring its B game to the mucho fireworks first game and noting that the first game means little (WCH 2010, hint hint) in the overall standings, it still shall make it easier on the heart to get to the semis with a draw or better. That said, the win over England could make Jason Lee (the Coach of the English team) -- who was "amused" by the London cold weather which the Indians suffered last month -- eat some humble pie, but that pie is not served cold till India makes the semis at the Games.

8) The choice of Yuvraj Walmiki over Gurvinder Singh Chandi seemed to have been a risky move and I am nonetheless wiser on whether Yuvraj has actually recovered from his repeated ankle injuries. Sandeep and Sardara have not been hitting in pairs with either losing "form" and Birendra Lakra has shared the defense dais with Sardara. If Rupinder Pal Singh strikes form, then the mishaps of Sandeep can be looked aside with enough backup. As much as the defeats from draws (England and Argentina) were, so were the wins from draws (Pakistan and S. Korea). The trend of India not throwing away bronze medal contests is good to note.

9) In terms of analysis and simple number crunching, Indian media either is terrible in terms of hockey or could nt care less (more the latter, I believe). Before the last regular day of games when India had no matches left, all the newspapers blared that "India is out of contention from the finals." Quite the contrary, a simple reading of the Azlan Shah Cup rules and regulations would have showed that a head-to-head does nt matter and only the GF-GA difference does. Thus, a 2-0 loss for the Argentine team at the hands of Malaysians, and a simple win for the Pakistanis against the English would have seen an India-NZ final clash because India would have ended up no. 2 on the points tally after a GF-GA tie-breaker. All those enormous statistical talent in the form of V. Jayadevan is wasted in India in micro-analyzing endless cricket matches that noone has the energy to even add 2 and 2 on hockey matters. Lame for a country of a billion and rising, even if not counting!

10) With India slowly catching up to the standard-fare Poligras pitches, after three decades of sleeping and ambling away due to the high costs, this blue and pink turf makes no sense in terms of egalitarianizing the rich European and South Pacific nations with the subcontinent in terms of hockey infrastructure. If the television viewer is of such importance that the hockey players have to suffer for them, may be an informal survey/poll (Gallup anyone!) has to be done to back this move by asking the viewer what he/she thinks of green-turf Poligras hockey vs. blue and pink turf Poligras Olympia hockey? Needless to say, the FIH with its massive voting power from the European bloc of nations that are no wider than my toilet has been bulldozing its fiat on the poorer nations while all along pipsqueaking about Bob Davidzon's Project Indian Hockey and what not. While ATP will have a review of the blue turf that has hogged all the limelite at the Madrid Open, will FIH do the same for the blue Poligras in the aftermath of the Olympics Games? If they come up with a revamp further down the line, who foots the bill? Each turf costs upward of 4 crore INR not to mention the maintenance and upkeep costs, which are unique to each turf. A 108 questions and noone has answers, so why not have a pure grass outfield for hockey like the good old days? Because it is inconvenient, and no shame on you, FIH. If one man/woman one vote is the democratic ideal that the Europeans tom-tom at the drop of a hat whenever the FTA negotiations come through, it cannot be one vote for a toilet-sized nation and one vote for a billion person country, can it? I would bet my bottom dollar that the FIH will parry away such a debate and therefore one more of my $ for Kapali-Karpagambal in another cookie jar to see the European nations that control FIH bite the economic doom and go further down into a bottomless pit.

Elsewhere,
1) On Anand's win, a rapid-based tie-breaker only seems to be the most logical course once the classical matches remained under stalemate. After all, if a tie-breaker is ok in the football WC (Brazil 94, Italy 06, anyone?!), hockey WC (1973 Indian loss that preceded the 75 win that people may not remember) and even in T-20 cricket, why not in chess?! In any case, both Gelfand and Anand had signed the dotted line and a rapid tie-breaker would nt have sounded any better lo and behold had Gelfand had won, would it? In contrast, it would have immediately led to all kinds of catcalls on how Gelfand truly does nt deserve to be a world champion by the Russian chess mafia and the Euro-led chessbase, which has conveniently closed down all the oo-hing and aah-ing that would have been the normative course had a Carlsen or an Aronian or a Russkie been anywhere close to winning any event. As they say in some circles:

Anand is still a Hindu and Gelfand a Jew,
Aronian an Armenian and chucky from Planet Ivanchuk.

There you go, I explained neatly in one loong line the agenda behind chessbase and the Russkie mafia :). Mazel tov, my friend.

2) There has been a buzz about bestowing Bharat Ratna to Vishy Anand following his title defense at Moscow. Well, if four world titles did nt deserve a BR, a fifth does nt too. In that regard, some claim that Sachin and Anand need to be bestowed a Ratna with a pre-stamped version for Dhyan Chand. I believe a Bharat Ratna will make more sense to be bestowed to an educationist or a scientist given that sportsmen/women only bring in emotional/economic (primarily indirect even if arguable either way) pleasures to Indians at large. On the other hand, scientific advances can improve the quality of life of people and set stage for a cycle of innovations. Its been a long time since someone like M. Viswesariah or C. V. Raman got the award, and somehow the last few renditions have been solely bagged by custodians of Indian culture such as musicians, playwrights, novelists and film makers -- as if being a Bharat Ratna is somehow the sole custodian-ship of these professions.

3) It was singularly expected that if the Government of Tamil Nadu did honor Anand on his triumph, that had to come under the aegis of the ADMK regime. The DMK regime of the bygone era has been singularly anti-sport and has only risen to the occasion to defend Santhi Soundararajan or extract a cut from India Cements for owning CSK. On the other hand, JJ has been a bastion of support for sporting events with the GoTN initially offering to host this current battle with Gelfand -- only losing out to Moscow in the process. Thankfully, the event was not held in Madras or anywhere in India as the Sanghi Nagar meltdown is still ripe in a knowledgeable chess watcher's head.

4) On the other hand, it was a good match to lose by CSK to KKR. As much as people hate Shahrukh Khan for owning a majority stake in KKR -- for their own good reasons (one hopes!), its been a long time since a city has derived massive pride in winning the IPL. Even the repeat triumphs of CSK failed to ignite the popularity charts in Madras beyond a certain level (Nakka Mukka does nt cut, bro!) and one more win would have made it more monotonous for everyone at stake, not to mention the Madras pettai rap-pists of course. Another good thing that was not noticed much was that all the top four teams were led by Indians, which out-shadowed the singular whine profile of lack of much Indian depth that was showcased in the event. One can safely claim that no new talents were unearthed and new talents would have been nothing more than short-term impresarios (so sorry for you, Bisla).

5) On this count, Calcutta's standard whine profile of Netaji Bose, JC Bose, Satyendranath Bose, Gopal Bose (Linky) has been somewhat overcome with the Sourav Ganguly era, the KKR win may heal a bit more of the deep rift in Bengal, one hopes. One has only got to recall that 1911 saw two major events: the laying of the foundation stone for Lutyens' Delhi that became the new capital following the Delhi Durbar and the eruption in Calcutta over Mohun Bagan's win in the IFA Shield finals over the Yorkshire Regiment. While the Calcutta Derby fails to remind one of the 1911 IFA Shield, the KKR win can hopefully fill in this gap.

6) A lot has been written on Sachin's Rajya Sabha membership, but Dileep Tirkey did take his oath of office a month back and not much has been said on that. For all the secular and nationalist-veer-Hindu credentials of the ruling and the Opposition combine, it was a Biju Janata Dal that sent a hockey sportsperson to the Rajya Sabha. And it was the same party that was at the forefront of supporting P. A. Sangma for President. While Naveen Patnaik has his own battle for the minds in the Munda-Gond-Oraon belt of Orissa with the Santhals staying away from the maoists, it is indeed amusing to have to hear the chorus of nationalist-secularist clique again and again. Another two cents: go home, and have a kitkat.

PS: The post on the Tamil problem has opened up a can of worms. To make sense of many of the dimensions that make up this problem, I will have to take time. So happy waiting.

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