Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Hockey - The untold story of how India lost world supremacy
by Minhaz Merchant in the Times of India
Pakistan’s hockey stars have been forced out of the lucrative new Hockey India League, patterned on the cash-rich IPL. I will leave debate on the rights and wrongs of this to a later post as a sequel to Make Pakistan pay. For the moment, let’s stick to hockey – how India lost its global supremacy and how we can regain it.
One afternoon, as I watched the late Tiger Pataudi, India’s former Test cricket captain, playing a hockey match at Bombay Gymkhana, I realized that few were aware how good a hockey player Tiger was. He had long retired from Test cricket but played a brilliant game for the club that afternoon.
Later, chatting casually, he remarked, pointing to the lush green field: “The tragedy of Indian hockey is that we no longer play on grass like this.” Tiger was appalled that the international game had switched to astroturf, putting Indian players at such a disadvantage.
Between 1928 and 1980, India won 8 Olympic gold medals in hockey. After 1980, we have not won a single hockey gold. At the 2012 London Olympics, India’s hockey team finished last in a field of 12.
The reasons for this are complex. But a principal cause is the betrayal of the country’s national sport by those elected to guard it and the ruthless duplicity of European and Australasian hockey authorities.
Till the early-1970s, hockey globally was played on grass. Indian players, bred on the fields of Punjab, Kerala and Goa, were unbeatable. Only Pakistan, with a similar lineage, offered competition.
All that changed in the mid-1970s. The International Hockey Federation (FIH) altered the rules to make synthetic astroturf the mandatory playing surface for international hockey tournaments.
The 1976 Olympics in Montreal was the first Games in which astroturf was used in hockey. For the first time since it began playing hockey in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, India did not win even a bronze medal. The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) should have objected. Whether through collusion or apathy, it did not. All Olympic Games henceforth were played on hard astroturf.
India has few astroturf grounds. They are expensive to lay (over Rs. 8 crore) and difficult to play on. While grass, on which hockey had been played internationally for nearly a century, allowed skilled Indian and Pakistani players to trap the ball, dribble and pass, astroturf suits the physicality of European and Australian hockey players based on raw power rather than technical skill.
Affluent Western countries like Holland, Germany and Australia have hundreds of astroturf grounds. The advantage is palpable. Not surprisingly, since 1980, Europe and Australia have dominated world hockey. India and Pakistan have slipped out of the world’s top five hockey-playing nations.
Indian sports administrators must share the blame. Not only were they complicit in allowing the change in playing surface from grass to synthetic astroturf, they were slow to adapt to it once the rules had been changed. Astroturf grounds were not laid. Local tournaments continued to be played on grass. When India played abroad, it started with a huge handicap.
As Sardara Singh, currently India’s best hockey international, said in a television interview, “Hockey players in India play on astroturf for the first time at the age of 19 or 20 and find it hard to adapt.”
What is the way forward? While astroturf cannot now be wished away, India can use its growing commercial influence to host a separate annual field hockey tournament. The game would be transformed. Just as tennis is played on different surfaces (grass at Wimbledon, clay at the French Open and hard courts at the US and Australian Opens), there is no reason why hockey can’t have two optional surfaces: astroturf and grass.
Like tennis players adapt to grass, clay and hard courts within a span of months (between the French Open in May, Wimbledon in July and the US Open in September), so can professional hockey players. Grass is hockey’s natural surface. It tests skill not just strength.
India’s hockey authorities, fractured by internecine rivalries, have little global clout. It is India’s corporate sector, with an interest in future Olympic gold medals, which must lead the campaign to restore natural turf as one of two alternative playing surfaces of choice in future international hockey tournaments. The new Hockey India League could set the example in its next edition. Sponsorships for field hockey tournaments would follow.
India has begun winning Olympic medals in individual sports since the Beijing Games but none in team sports like hockey. That must change. In India less than 0.1% of the population (around one million) has access to the facilities, nutrition and training athletes from Western countries and China do. In “sports-access” terms, our population is equivalent to New Zealand’s. It is no shame to win fewer medals than smaller, richer countries. But it is a shame not to give our national sport, hockey, a level playing field.