Thursday, August 16, 2012

Further reflections on the bust-up at the Games

What does one make of the hockey let-down in London? For someone as emotionally invested in hockey as me, it is hard to come to terms with what actually happened, and even harder to explain -- thus the silence. Yet things have to be explained, even if shakily, toward finding a sense of closure. It is indeed an irony that we now have to invent reasons to understand our failure when we should ideally be spending time analyzing our near-misses.

First things first -- the caveat. I do not watch live matches any more (cricket, hockey, chess, or any other sport that India/Indians plays/play) because it has been too bad on my heart for a long time now. While I do follow most of the American and AFL/NRL sporting scene live, the last live non-dead Indian match I remember seeing was the 1996 World Cup semi-final loss. So you have to realize what I say is based on what I have read and what little I have seen. In fact, it is highly likely that you might have seen much much more of the live action than me. So if you find the following flaky, well, just assume that its the price to pay for not seeing me dead from an arrhythmic jolt. But then, you have indeed heard from me all this while when I have not seen a single live match which you might have seen more closely than me, so go figure.

What caused the bust-up?

1) The enormity of the pressures and the expectations: For a team that missed out on Beijing and the continual funereal atmosphere that one witnessed over the last four years, it was indeed a relief to wallop the French with a tennis score at Delhi. However, all that relief only begat more expectations and do-well cards. The week before the send-off to the pre-London European tour saw a massive who's who of India's hockey afficianados come together to wish the team well. While it was a generous gesture on the part of Hockey India to invite the golden oldies, was it a Hobson's choice in disguise? There were indeed reports of how Sandeep, Sardara and Bharat were enamored by the gold medals which some of the yesteryear stalwarts had brought with them. Surely, such an assemblage could indeed be an inspiration. But then the eyes on the team could have had an impact on the free-flowing nature of the game.

The team became aware of what it had signed up to and it is hard to deliver under such circumstances unless one is mentally trained for it. While some people thrive well under pressure, for many, the overwhelming nature of pressure can unleash a self-questioning frenzy conveniently labeled as choking. From all indications, the mental training of the Indian hockey team was/is a complete shambles. In some sense, the team forgot what it could do. And when that happens, one makes mistakes aplenty; things that one practices a gazillion times become hard and impossible to deliver in reality. We are all aware of this in our real life, the hockey team just showed us how human they are.

2) Two Goalkeepers and one Captain: Having Sreejesh and Bharat Chhetri as goalkeepers is not the same as sending Parthiv Patel and MS Dhoni as wicket-keepers on a long English summer or a bruising tour Down Under. There were indications and critiques by some commentators that the body language of a lack of first-choice goalkeeper could come back to bite us. If you cannot assure a place for the captain of the team in the final 11 that takes to the ground, what subconscious message does that signify: is the captain not the first among equals? Or has Indian hockey grown over the concept of a captain? Such deleterious thinking was what led to the ouster of Rajpal Singh and Prabhjyot Singh from the Indian team (and an internal blood-feud of sorts) after the massive mess in Canada under Jose Brasa.

3) Constant ring-a-ring-a roses: For long, people who should have been in the line-up such as Prabhjyot, Rajpal and Arjun have been thrown to the dogs. It was only a miracle that saw Danish get to the Games. It appears that the only person who can be assured of a spot in the team seems to be someone who kowtows to the final authority of Hockey India. This is not how a game -- any game -- is played. While Hockey India needs to hold the bar high on disciplinary matters and eject those who display tendencies of violence/consistent aggression on the field (yes, we have had our fair share of the player chasing the referee with his stick on not being awarded a PC) or dope cheats (not the marijuana takers, hint hint!), that does not mean that someone asking for higher remuneration should be dismissed at like a non-entity. A team has to grow over a certain period before it can gel enough to perform well -- this is what clicked for the Indian cricket team in the 2000s after the core was formed in the early- to mid-90s. What is the core of the Indian hockey team? Sardara and Sandeep. The rest fall into newcomers and inexperienceds. Except for Ignace and Sandeep, noone has had an Olympic moment before. Even modulo the Santiago meltdown, India fielded one of the youngest teams in the event. While youth in general is no solution or a non-solution to life's woes, it is just the indication of how Hockey India administers its panchayati raj.

4) Goodbye to some stars and bring on young blood: A simple calculation shows that Bharat will be 34 at Rio, Ignace will be 35, Shivendra will be 33, and Tushar will be 31. The current core -- Sandeep and Sardara -- will both be 30 while the rest of the lot will be their mid- to late-20s. While Bharat has opened up Indian hockey to the Nepali segment in India and has been a shining light in this regard, it is time to recognize the hampering nature of a Bharat vs. Sreejesh battle. While a golden handshake to Bharat should not be surprising, it is time to honor his contributions to Indian hockey. In that regard, we do not have a Hall of Fame, which we sorely need.

It is also time that the major star of WSH, Gurjinder Singh, be asked to come forward and be awarded an amnesty program. While the IHF-HI fistfights have been irritating, they are more sinister when they bottle up talent. Talent unearthed by either organization is still talent and that too Indian talent. That said, where is the India-A ranks? One Roshan Minz or Amit Rohidas does not make for all the baggages that make the junior India trips. For which,

5) one has to call a cat a cat and blame the Punjabi lobby: For way too long, Indian hockey has become synonymous with Punjab and the attendant politics between the various districts of Punjab. Of late, Haryana has joined this melee -- with its various poaching activities. While the Sikhs have been first among equals in terms of contributions to Indian hockey and immensely contributing to so many of the eight golds that we did get, it is also true that inter-casteist and intra-Punjabi politics have been exported to IHF and HI. In fact, a long whine profile from the rest of India is that the administration is oblivious to talent from elsewhere. Specifically, the tribal states of the Northeast and Jharkhand/Chhattisgarh have wondered how to get someone in the team even if the first captain of the Indian hockey team was one Jaipal Singh Munda. In this edition, only Birendra and Ignace could make the line-up while Kothajit went on standby mode, while there were many contenders from Jharkhand to start with. One specific item to blame is the junior India tours, which are often loaded with Punjabi/Sikh players in favor with the establishment. It has been an open secret that many of the junior rankers do not exhibit the talent commensurate with a junior India cap. Even given that success at the junior India ranks is not translatable to success at the Olympics and the senior level, in general, a call to fix Punjabi political nexus in terms of team selection at all levels should be a no-brainer. Such a nexus bottles up talent from rising up and makes the pursuit of hockey a short-term fix for monetary reasons.

All said and done...
1) This is not as bad a team as people make it out to be. When I hear comments such as "these guys should go back and learn how to trap the ball, ..." sorry to sound arrogant, but it lacks common sense. It is a truism that no team traps the ball well. Gone are the days of grassfield hockey where trapping is possible with near-100% accuracy. The fast-paced nature of the current game means that hockey is no longer a Dravid-esque technical showcasing of one's hockey skills. Another game that has gone from accuracy to power over the years is basketball. A cursory look at the All Star Game shows that except for the three-pointer contest, it is all about showmanship, power and raw brute, rather than about accuracy, angles and acumen. Coming back, it is not how you trap the ball alone, but how you play on the mat, how you beat up your opponent, how you avoid those stupid mistakes in the D. Or rather, how you commit less of them and how if you commit them, your team can recover well.

So when I hear the rhetoric of the "trap card", it sounds exactly in the same vein as the advise on how the Indian middle-order should learn to play with a straight bat or a dead bat or a dour defense. And then we have Sehwag, a rule unto himself. At the end of the day, the rules are for people who want to obey. For those who want to rule, make the damn rules your way.

2) While going back to learn trapping is stupid, polishing off the skill-sets is what we need. We keep seeing the repeated failures of our penalty corner teams. Sandeep was a failure in that regard at London as was Raghunath. One sad thing that happens at the Everest is that people constantly watch you and learn from your successes and their mistakes. Life at the top is summarized as: running at a very fast pace to stand at the same place. For the hockey team, that is a pun with a not so delightful visualization.

3) It is going to become fashionable to abuse the hockey team. Or worse, becoming lethargic and uninterested in their outings. Can we just assure ourselves that a 12th place finish is better than a FIH card that shows a 13th rank under the Olympics listing? We missed a monumental chance to climb out of the rut in terms of FIH rankings and will have to wait till the next World Cup in two years time. Then, there is the question of Asian Games and an automatic qualifer. There is of course the Champions Trophy invite that has come a year too late. While I am waiting to see the BlackShirts implode under a lack of depth (that usually happens), let us take a book out of their cup-board and bring Gurjinder and some of the other stars of WSH.

4) Firing Mike Nobbs is not only a stupid idea at this stage, especially given the long contract that he has signed with HI, but also being instantaneous in terms of reactionism. Whether Mike Nobbs works for Indian Hockey or not will be visible sooner than later. What Mike Nobbs needs to learn to conduct business with HI is that he has to assert his rights in having the full share of Indian stars for selection. He cannot be seen to kowtow endlessly to HI and banish one player and performer after another only to keep a frayed peace in his office.

5) Scientific coaching is as much a non-existent entity in Indian hockey as is lack of high quality umpires in Indian cricket. What the Indian team needs is someone who can keep up with the Jonases (asses, if you like) who make the rules sitting in Brussels. Rules keep constantly changing and being a country with a huge market gives us the right to assert ourselves. At the end of the day, Indian viewership brought a good fraction of FIH's profits in the last two years. While our economy will be accommodated within the world political sphere, our own diffidence needs to go. Hockey India, grow a few balls please!

6) We need midfielders and we need defenders. It has become a fashion for everyone to want to score a goal, saving one is a thankless job. Taking on deep defense and midfield roles need to be made fashionable. As much as one hates to mention it, the National Cricket Academy and MRF "Pace" Foundation have been responsible for unearthing some good cricket talent in India. We do not have the hockey equivalent of these academies. We do not have a single pink and blue turf, let alone as many astroturfs as we would like. And we kill what we have with poor upkeep and shambolic mismanagement. Can we grow some brains, please?

7) Finally, either the Mittal Champions Trust or the Olympics Gold Quest could come forward to sponsor our team given that grassroots supports is sporadic at best and useless to bank on for long-term plans. Given that the BCCI effort to draw tax benefits by supporting other games have been shot down by the tax-wisemen of India, MCT/OGQ have to loosen up their individual efforts' definition and think long and hard about what a Gold means for India and Indian prestige/self-esteem. As for the constant clamor of demoting the hockey team from funding by MSYA, thanks, but no thanks. Not for the money, but for the wise words. We have had enough of these already from the wise sadhus of India that only India can generate with such gay abandon.

8) And finally finally (really!), my vote for the HI President goes to either Shivraj Singh Chauhan or Ajay Maken. While having a politician administrator is a necessary evil that we cannot overcome in India, I would at least have a workaholic lover of the game rather than a brick in the wall. The last Tamil Nadu contribution to hockey has been one K. Jyothikumaran, a sad tale of how hockey has become in the state. On the other hand, a 108 bullet salute to Shri Chauhan's yeoman support for the Great Game! When people say, "we need Narendra Modi for PMship", it is remarkable that such a sentiment ignores the reality that "we do not need one Narendra Modi, but we need 108 of them." Here is one, take that BJP, you have a hero in your midst amidst all the zeros that add the numbers. Failure at spotting the talent is perhaps an Indian truism.

Onwards!! And Aye Gorkhali!!!

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