Sunday, August 18, 2013

Impressions from the sport arena

It has been a looong looong time since my last post. And life has indeed changed in the meanwhile, whatever that is supposed to mean. No, not the change Modi-ji wished. Hopefully, I can squeeze in life into the blog more frequently than the last few months.

It is more than a truism that Indian sport succeeds whenever it does, despite best efforts by its benefactors to help it --- efforts that eventually destroy any success story. One tricky compromise in robust-ifying whatever success stories that exist in India is to spin-off excellence centers in different sports to different regions across India. Much like the Kota, Ramaiah, Super-30 type non-franchised efforts, sports excellence is indeed best achieved by regional centers where the best-of-the-best across India hope to sharpen their wits and trade-craft.

Unbeknownst to us, this is indeed happening today. The latest exhibit in this list is the badminton capital that has flowered over the last few years in Hyderabad despite the chaos that rules the streets on its future trajectory. A similar path was realized for squash in Madras, tennis in Madras, Calcutta and of late in Bangalore, shooting in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, wrestling in the various akharas in and around Delhi, boxing in Bhiwani, and so on. That said, much of shooting's success is top-down as has always been the sport. Without the support-cast of the Army and the maharajas of the yester-era, and the neo-maharajas of this era, shooting would have been a dead sport in India, as would be golf.

Unfortunately, reverse to this trend is the trajectory of the various hockey academies and excellence centers in Punjab, Coorg, Jharkhand, Orissa and Manipur. While we lack enough astroturfs on a per-capita basis, destroying the existing structures due to poor maintenance is even more sacrilegious. As much as middle-class India gangs up on the hockey structure for its dismal performance over the decades, much of this venom has never been directed at the bureaucrats, government officials and stadia custodians who put stumbling blocks beyond imagination in ensuring the wrecking of existing infrastructure. Even the much hallowed structures at the SAI center in Bangalore have been wrecked by ineptitude and shoddy maintenance somuchso that the training Indian team has to shift camps elsewhere (to the NIS camp in Patiala).

India departs for the Asia Cup in Ipoh, the home of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, with the winner goes-to-the-World-Cup-eventuality, provided that the winner is one of Pakistan, India, or Malaysia. Malaysia will qualify from the event as the 5th best team from Hockey World League if South Korea wins it  --- since Korea have already qualified based on their 4th finish at that event and the good fortune bestowed on them by the Argentines at the Pan-Am cup. With either India or Pakistan guaranteed to miss the boat to the World Cup for the first time, here is to hoping that it is Pakistan that misses the boat. All that of course depends on the semi-final line-up and how the young team performs on that day. I would nt be too hopeless with the much dissed Shri MK Kaushik at the helm, but stranger things have happened in Indian hockey than I can say.

I have not turned on to watch the chess pages over the last few months. And I firmly believe that radio silence from the Anand camp is a much better way to prepare for the showdown with Carlsen than to tip-toe around with selective leaks. Of course, I do not know if leaks have happened as my receiver has shut down anyway.

Doping for the tiniest of edges is a universal phenomenon in sport today (recent showcases being A-Rod and Miguel Tejada) and nothing exemplifies India's rampant doping than the athletes and weightlifters. There is a common understanding that Indian athletes dope beyond imagination at home and that explains why their personal bests are often seen at home than in world-class events where they come a-cropper and go much worser than their personal bests. The just concluded World athletics championship adds more fuel to this fire, where with the exception of Vikas Gowda, it has been a rather similar story. The women's relay team, which won the other gold at the Asian event at Pune a month back with a 3:32.26 timing (Vikas got the first gold), ended the heat with 3:38.81 --- unexplainable unless one athlete lost her footing or got tripped. (I have not watched the video, so my guess is as good as yours).

That said, coming as she is from her recent ban, how Ashwini Akkunji could make it to the 1600 relay team, even if she was the 5th/6th runner, is beyond me. She has not run any competitive event for two years and is the talent-pool in relay so shallow? But this is India, where nepotism is better seen than voiced. As much as she was the shining symbol of a rising second-tier India, as are/were the cricketers from unknown places, her symbol had vanished along with the entire septet of relay runners when they were all caught for doping (for exactly the same stanozolol and epimethandiol combination). The technicality under which Manjit Kaur was banned for refusing to give her sample for testing does not allow her to escape the doping accusation, as this is an arena where you are guilty till you exonerate yourself. I would go one step further and annul the Commonwealth games gold voluntarily as there is a big question mark on that record, especially with the whole team getting caught. But this is again India, where sports wins are important in getting police and government jobs as well as promotions, which explains the rampant doping in who-dares-win that is India.

There is really not much to report from the football field, as we notched up a good 3-zip loss to Tajikistan and  thus remain stable in the FIFA rankings, wallowing amidst the shambles that is world football. At the very least, we stay above other subcontinental teams rather than dive to the bottom of the pits. Ditto for the tennis arena, I have stopped following the craziness that was Davis Cup with the boycott led by Somdev & co, which really achieved nothing except set back the DC moorings by a couple of years. We lost the first round encounter of Group-I Asia Oceania, which automatically forced us to fight to stay back in the same group for the remaining part of the year, forget the world group playoff that was possible with a full-fledged team. The backtracking by Somdev & co and the subsequent calling off of the boycott in the playoff match (against Indonesia) with essentially nothing new given by AITA in writing or deeds only goes to show how strategically stupid Indians are. And how callous middle-class India is in questioning the stars and prima donnas about their actions and strategies.

To round a full-story, Indian hockey is strategically stupid and intellectually inept. It is not necessary to win all games to rise up in the FIH standings. It is important to win the meaningful games instead of appearing crestfallen and dejected by failure. Winning a bronze medal show-off followed by a hardly fought semifinal loss is more important than walking dead in the playoff game. It helps you gain valuable FIH points and every point counts. You rise up in the Asian league and get the opportunities that you would have missed, by making the boat for the Champions Trophy and so on. Success is not just talent, success is also opportunity to get better by experience. There is no longer a nature or nurture question anymore, it is nature, nurture and knowledge. This lesson is clearly seen in the fortunes of the English and Kiwi hockey teams, poor ones by any standard metric in hockey: lore, myth or reality, but not so poor as seen from the FIH rankings.

As for doping, I wish the Indian hockey players get a new drug supplement that will open up their heads to strategizing better and implementing that on the field, in action and results. That wish beckons the question: is there hope for hockey in India? As a dyed-in-the-wool optimist, I remain hopeful with the caveat that "hopeful" is often a hopeful word for the hopeless. As someone who cannot change the tomorrow, I am not sure if it is worth changing the yesterday that presents itself as today.

Let us move on, anyway. Till sooner than later....

PS: It turns out that the Don Driver and Greg Jennings hit-out against the other A-Rod are for real and that makes some story for the naive. As for me, this is the bastion of uber-elitemen. During their heydays, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman had few nice words for MJ, the friend. The Sampras v. Agassi, Connors v. McEnroe, Billie Jean King v. Chris Evert spats are legendary of course. Hope the cheeseheads roll the tide back for one more season and it is nonsensical to see dreams killed half-way, we will see. 

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