Saturday, July 26, 2014

The caboodle of crap aka hockey update

Cars and marriages are similar. Those who have one want an upgrade, and those who have none want a new one. Time management philosophy is similar. Those who have time, dont know how to blow it and end up being a pain for everyone. Those who dont have time, dont know how to create it. Sorry, I fall into the last category for the time being (hopefully), and the blame is entirely mine.

There is a lot going on in sports these days and sadly, I am still following them all. Unfortunately, I cannot write about some of these things without rolling my eyes at the lack of clarity in the desi media discourse. Hopefully, I can pen some of this down. First love first....

The end of the World Cup hockey at The Hague brought in a mixed feeling of "so close, yet so far." Eking out last minute losses to Belgium and England (no-name teams for a long long time) meant that India was out of the fight in any of the 5-8 spots. A simple draw against both teams would have taken us to the 7-8 spot playoff against Newzealand, which we would have most likely won. The 75 point differential in the FIH rankings system would have seen us retain the 8th spot in the FIH ranking list, which we had usurped from Argentina in May 2014, but by swapping the upward climb of Argentina following their third place finish with the slide of Korea following their loss to us in the 9-10 playoff spot.

Why is this important? Because the pool in the Incheon Asian Games is going to be based on the latest FIH rankings, which means that India and Pakistan will form one pool, and South Korea and Malaysia will form another. Surely, a team aspiring to win the event should nt bother too much about pools or randomness, etc., but that nonsensical thought process is often a disaster like witnessed at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010 and multiple times before that. India had won every match in the pools (including the match against Pakistan 3-2), and in the semi-finals, India conceded a late (not late by Indian standards) 66th minute equalizer to the second ranked cross-team, Malaysia. Another few more minutes of extra-time madness at the top of the circle later, India was out of the finals of the Asian Games and ergo an automatic berth to the London games (which we might have missed had the qualifier event been held in some random place like Santiago 2008, unlike in Delhi where we whipped the French 8-1 to get to London, only to lose the plot and end up with the wooden spoon for which there is a good excuse towards the end of this post). Incidentally, both the goals in that semi-final were scored by the penalty corner specialist and a flat-footed defender, a role for which he was repeatedly criticized (same as has been the case with Sandeep Singh, Raghunath or Rupinderpal Singh in the Indian side), Md. Amin Rahim.

The point being, modern field hockey is a game of madness where fortunes can (and often do) repeatedly swing depending on the random mistakes of the players. It is truly a game of snakes and ladders, with minimal opportunities for recovery and restitution, unlike the good old field hockey which was resilient to human frailties and madnesses, a redeeming feature allowing the Indians to excel at it, aided by deft stickwork skills that had been beaten into the system from the club level to the higher level and organizational transparency (more on this much later).

In fact, the Goans and the Anglo-Indians (the initial stalwarts of Indian hockey by a far significant margin than comfortable), with a need to redeem their identities in the face of their mixed-race ancestries and the red-flag of the Aryan claims to preponderance in every known human activity, were consistently aped and then bested by the latter arrivals such as Dhyan Chand and Roop Singh, leading to a positive feedback loop of competition, cooperation and collaboration (adding one more C down the line -- cronyism aka social networking) in the form of Muslim players (many of whom later crossed over to Pakistan), Hindus (such as Kishan Lal, KD Singh Babu) and much later the Sikh players (such as Randhir Singh Gentle, Balbir Singh Sr.), etc. That Goan and Anglo-Indian heritage of Indian hockey probably explains the lukewarm feeling in India for the 1928 Indian team or the 32 one or even the 36 all-marauding one.

In short, early Indian hockey was Indian in the sense of how it embraced real as well as perceived disparate identities into a seamless whole of Team-India, but that very redeeming feature probably did not enthuse it to the vast majority comfortable in their own isolated cocoons till that esoteric happenstance started becoming the norm in cricket much much later. It is indeed a sad reality that many of those Goans and Anglo-Indians despite their confused identities chose to migrate to the colonial west or its ramparts as did the Muslims to the newly created state in their name and for them. How much of that can be attributed to the minimal enthusiasm for hockey from the majority community? Probably little given that many Muslims still chose to stay back for whatever reasons and many of the Anglo-Indians from other countries (Sri Lanka for that matter) chose to migrate too, but an unbiased look at the past cannot discard hypotheses (however didactic they may be) with certitude based on uncertain and imprecise arguments.

In any case, no community can claim to have a first right on Indian hockey (did someone in HI hear that today? or may be that lesson needs to be imparted to the IHF?) because Indian hockey legacy has been built on the sweat, blood, grime and sinews of so many communities and regions, across the length and breadth of India. Truly, a sport egalitarian in not just tall talk and grand hopes, but in precise and swift action. To be even more point-blank, cricket reaped the benefit of standing on the dead ruins of the old Indian hockey and enjoying the second-mover advantage. No harm, no foul, love is still love even if it is unrequited and life a bit plaintive that the bygone days are bygone.

The broader more useful non-wistful point (relevant to the current) being that one has to minimize the chances of errors and add a layer of redundancy to any conceivable plot to make the automatic berth to the Rio Games in 2016. Given that the Asian Games is in Korea, and a host country has the deck skewed for them in any match against an outsider (with a very high probability), India has to play out of their skins to best Korea in the semi-finals or the finals. If such an event were to take place, it better be in the finals because the high adrenaline of having to play out of your skin with a deck stacked up against you and the high-stakes of the game (ranking points, auto berth, gold medal, bragging piece on the mantle, etc.), means that if India gets to win it in the semi-final, there is a good likelihood of it coming a cropper in the final, even against the lackadaisical Malaysians of today. The cost of conceding those two last second goals at the World Cup is to skew the prior distribution at the Incheon games in the form of an India-South Korea semi-final. This is the butterfly effect as regards hockey (more on this much later), something from which we have been long itching to break free from with minimal success.

That minimal success is only because we do not fully realize how small things matter in the end and this whole dynamic is a work in progress. That brings me to the positives of the World Cup event, a non-drooped Indian team taking the field for the 9th place finish and finishing first in Asia besting South Korea 3-0 comfortably. This win was no fluke, it is the result of the Indians getting better at fitness over the last 2-3 years (by a significant margin) and the Koreans going down with the refresh of their team. It helped that the average age of the Indian team was one of the lowest at the World Cup. A lot has been said about Sreejesh's performance which saw him elevated to the vice-captain role for the Commonwealth Games event. A lot has also been said about how Raghunath and Rupinder flopped miserably at the one role they are in the team primarily for (penalty corner conversion). Not a lot has been said about the call from Dhanraj Pillay (and the rank of the "home-grown" Coach club) to axe Terry Walsh, Roelant Oltmans and co. because "they failed to win a medal/do better/[fill in your blank]." Sadly, Walsh's stint has not been so bad at all, even if dil maangey more!

The debutant, Jasjit Singh, was axed even as he was surprisingly brought in to the team with no senior performance worthy of credit prior to that. He did score the first goal in the win against Malaysia, but that did nt save him. SK Uthhappa and Mandeep Singh were dropped to pave the way for Gurwinder Singh Chandi and Danish Mujtaba. The 20 year old sub-goal keeper Harjot Singh has to wait for his day or best Sreejesh (but before that has to consistently best Sushant Tirkey) or hope for a 18 man team. Nikkin Thimmaiah and Ramandeep Singh, debutants in the Asia Cup last year and who were injured in the pratice matches before the World Cup and had to be replaced with Yuvraj Walmiki and Lalit Upadhyay, returned while the returnees were dropped. Lalit, who was a victim of a sting operation gone bad (with the dubious claim that he tried to make his way into some district level team by bribing the officials) is 23, as is Nikkin. Ramandeep is 21 boding well for a young, fit and agile future. Knocking on the doors are junior-turned HIL stars, Affan Yousuf, Gurjinder Singh, Talwinder Singh and Satbir Singh.

Sadly, the HIL 2014 top-scorer and by all means one with a creditable performance in HIL 2014, Sandeep Singh, is probably not going to make any further forays with the Indian team jersey primarily because of the apparent obnoxious claim that he concedes more goals than he scores. Sandeep's inconsistency in the defense, India's weakest link, means that even a less-successful Rupinderpal and Raghunath are preferred over Sandeep. India's constant search for a replacement for a stonewall Dilip Tirkey or a Pargat Singh is still a tall order given that we have lost touch with the deft skillwork that the old Indians were famous for.

While the stage has not yet begun to start thinking of HIL 2015, it is clear that the erstwhile IHF has de facto become defunct. The essential disbandment of WSH, the impending lapsing of the 3 year contract that WSH and Nimbus signed with many players in early 2015, the lack of vitality on the part of IHF-organized events has meant that despite the Competition Commission of India declaring HI's actions on players who took part in WSH questionable/ambiguous in terms of conflict of interest issues (Linky), the HI apparatus has got away OJ Simpson style. In fact a read of the CCI ruling makes the issues at hand rather transparent.

Specifically the DG (not the final verdict) stated in (Sec., page 16):
In light of the above mentioned facts, DG concluded, that HI acting through FIH has abused its dominance to maintain their control over hockey sports in India. They have restricted players to participate in any match or event which is not sanctioned by them. Their conduct has also resulted in foreclosure of market for any other enterprise to organize hockey tournaments. 
After looking at the sum-total of the arguments by both parties and the DG, the Commission though declared (Sec. 10.12.6, page 58):
The prospective application of Bye laws negates the 'afterthought to WSH' finding by DG. 
The Commission in its final Order (pages 62-63) said:
The Commission after considering all the aspects relating to the case concluded that there is no contravention of Section 3(3)(b), 3(4), 4(2)(a), 4(2)(c) and 4(2)(e) of the Act in this instance. However, the nature of the present system itself, with the possible conflict of interest between the 'regulatory' and 'organising of events' roles of Hockey India, has raised certain potential competition concerns in the mind of the Commission. 
A regulator must necessarily follow the dictum that 'Caesar's wife must be above suspicion.' In this case the DG report points out circumstantial evidence which, though not establishing violation of the Competition Act, further persuades the Commission about the inherent potential of violation, and the need for clear articulation and separation of the two roles of HI. 
Another version of the same report has the following (Linky):
Page 61 (para 111): In the beginning hockey like other sports did not have much money. But with the advent of television, live coverage of hockey came to households and with the advance in communications the viewership of hockey went worldwide. Hockey therefore like other sports became a source of entertainment. This brought advertisers and money to hockey in the form advertisements, sponsorships, broadcasting rights through radio, T.V. and internet. 
Thus, a regulator like FIH got interested in the cash which was generated through sports. 
Page 61 (para 112): Prior to 1970, FIH did not have a strangehold over the sports of hockey from grassroot level to the international hockey as there were other associations laying down rules of the sport. Though the Olympic Charter was issued in 1896, one International association for hockey came into being only in 1970 for men’s hockey whereas for women’s hockey the international association came into effect with effect from 1982. FIH is a federation of national hockey associations but by the byelaws of 11.03.2011 it appears to control the domestic hockey in the territory of each national association through a system of sanctioned/unsanctioned event. If a national association did not accept the byelaws of FIH they could be penalised or expelled from the FIH.   
Page 62 (para 112): The idea of sanctioned/unsanctioned events for hockey were probably borrowed from cricket. The system of sanctioned/unsanctioned events was introduced in cricket by the International Cricket Committee after the Packer episode in the late 1970s. 
Page 63 (para 116): The other facts which are clear are that FIH had directed that players should not participate in unsanctioned tournaments. If they participated they had to be denied the opportunity to playing for their national team. FIH also directed that the officials, coaches and umpires etc. should also not participate in the unsanctioned event. If they participated then action was to be taken against the officials. FIH also directed the national associations to come out with the code of conduct which HI issued in September 2011 and every player who wanted to play for India had to sign. HI initially was probably willing to allow WSH league to run but probably at the instance of FIH put impediments to the running of the league. The WSH league was held in early 2012 after the intervention of the Delhi High Court. 
Page 63 (para 117): It is clear from the above discussion that HI was acting at the behest of FIH for the simple reason that its recognition and existence depended on FIH. This was confirmed by the submissions of HI before the Commission where it stated that its actions were in accordance with the directions of FIH. Thus it is the behaviour of FIH which requires scrutiny under the Competition Act. 
Page 65 (para 121): As far as the regulators like FIH and HI are concerned their role is mainly to apply the rules of the game and the anti-doping code. The regulators organise international tournaments and they decide the calendar of events so that the events do not clash with each other. But if they start using these powers for the purpose of furthering their economic interest then there is a cause of concern. 
The directions are as follows:- 
(i) The Code of Conduct between Hockey India and FIH should be modified and issue concerning sanctioned/unsanctioned events should be deleted. There should be no restriction on players to play sanctioned/unsanctioned events. 
(ii) There should be no penalty on the players for playing unsanctioned events. 
(iii) There should be no question of having no objection certificate from any tournament organiser for playing in some other tournament in the case of players. 
(iv) FIH should not have a stipulation that if a national association participates in unsanctioned events, it could be penalised. This works against the concept of the independence of the national association and is abusive in nature. FIH should therefore modify its byelaws accordingly. 
(v) FIH should also modify the guidelines and remove the penalty clause for players who participate in unsanctioned events. 
In effect, HI killed IHF by using FIH as much as FIH propped up HI to kill IHF (all de facto). FIH has appropriated the right to recognize hockey events AND to appropriate commercial profits by the running of the sport in such events, even if that laundering of resources is to the detriment of the host nation and unbeknownst to the hockey lovers of that nation. We came last in the London Games because we followed the FIH diktats in toto and discarded a whole bunch of folks (Prabhjyot, Rajpal, Viren Rasquinha, Vikram Kanth, Len Aiyappa, etc. come to the mind) from being considered for the Games. That theory was stood on its head by the Pakistani team which included players who had contracted and played for the WSH and sadly, there is no explanation why the FIH did not exclude the Pakistani team from London, STILL. The World Cup in 2018 is in Bhubhaneshwar not just because HI and MSYA put in a good bid, but also because the FIH can milk maximal profits from an event hosted in India (like in Delhi 2010). The unwitting Indian hockey lover in effect bankrolls the FIH and various other FIH-sanctioned events like HIL, without commensurate benefits to the players (not always) and with a strict monopoly only to the FIH. In short, colonialism by the rule book is still that and the Indian taxpayer and the government bankrolls his/its own subjugation by means of tax waivers to an outside organization that does nt have the best interests of India at its heart. 

As far as Sandeep Singh goes, his major creditworthiness of pulling off from the WSH just before the launch of the event still could not buy him life from the vindictive HI apparatus which had sidelined almost every player in the WSH, except perhaps the super-talented Gurjinder. The case of Gurjinder is however one of half promises as by now, he should have been a Sohail Abbas in the making rather than a potential Gurbaj. Therein lies the sad tale of India and Indian hockey. We would spite each other twice at the propping of the outsider, maim each other, and in consequence wreck our own destinies when instead of competition, collaboration and standing up could work just as well.

Education does nt cure all ills, but it at least opens the eyes to some...

Part 1 (hopefully) of a long three-part series concluded.



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