Can Indian Field Hockey Find the Road to Recovery?

With the Olympics looming next year, the host nation's early World Cup exit was another blow fans could have done without

Can Indian Field Hockey Find the Road to Recovery?
India lost its match against New Zealand, eliminating it from the Hockey World Cup. (Hockey India)

A huge part of growing up to wistful eulogies to Indian field hockey was summoning belief in the unseen. Between 1928 and 1980, India had won eight gold medals in the sport at the Olympics. Yet, if you were a ’90s kid who arrived long after the golds had dried up, hockey may have existed outside the immediate perimeter of attention (though a flamboyant Dhanraj Pillay — former captain, brilliant dribbler and one of India’s best-ever forwards — was hard to miss).

Instead, devotion belonged to cricket and its then-reigning deity, Sachin Tendulkar. Indian hockey’s medium-term prognosis was rocky and things only began to turn in the past decade. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, a medal for the Indian men’s hockey team after 41 barren years, plus fourth place for the women’s side for the first time, had a generation sobbing, disbelieving and pouring themselves into a moment they thought would never come. Still, cricket continues to hold primacy in India, going beyond mere sport to become a symbol of national identity and global clout.

In the past couple of weeks, hockey reappeared on Indian screens. The men’s team played its World Cup matches to heaving stands and pyrotechnics in the east Indian coastal state of Odisha. Ranked sixth in the world, they stood a couple of rungs below the current leaders – Germany, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands. Yet their early, anticlimactic exit from the tournament after losing to a lower-ranked New Zealand raises many questions. India didn’t even make the quarterfinals, finishing in ninth place, the worst-ever performance by a host nation. It almost made their rousing Tokyo moment seem like another era, starring a whole different team of players.

Odisha — with its high-pitched frenzy, state-of-the art facilities and full houses at matches, backed by a government pulling out all the stops — was a consummate Hockey World Cup host. But this is never enough to guarantee results. If anything, the opposite could be argued. At the previous World Cup held in Odisha five years ago, India lost in the quarterfinals. It bears mentioning that Odisha’s love for hockey is something of an outlier; a curious case of a state with not-so-sunny socioeconomic indicators that has picked sport as its mascot. It’s a vision that belongs to 76-year-old chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, and his team of astute bureaucrats.

Until he was around 50, Patnaik spoke no Odia — the vernacular of the state — and lived in the United States. “He was busy party-hopping and indulging in the finer things of life,” writes Ruben Banerjee in his biography of the political leader. Patnaik hung out with Mick Jagger and was a good friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who even edited two of the three coffee table books he authored) before being thrust into the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics soon after the death of his father, Biju Patnaik, the former chief minister of the state.

A thoroughbred politician who has held office for over two decades now, Naveen Patnaik is hugely popular in the region. His welfare schemes are a runaway hit. “Mission Shakti,” put into force since 2001, with the creation of 600,000 self-help groups organizing some 7 million rural women, is counted among his government’s most successful programs.

However, there is a reason Patnaik chose to back hockey. It’s a sport in which the state, particularly its tribal-majority district of Sundargarh, has produced an assembly line of Indian international players.

The history of hockey in India goes back to the British regiments in Calcutta, followed by Bombay and Punjab, where the first hockey clubs in the country were set up. The sport was brought into the mineral-rich region of Sundargarh in the 18th century by European Christian missionaries, who saw it as an efficient, inexpensive tool to unite members of local tribes. Over the years, the number of those playing hockey grew. In 1985, Patnaik’s father set up the Panposh Sports Hostel in Sundargarh during his tenure as chief minister. It was foundational in rearing some of the country’s most gifted exponents of the sport — including former player and the incumbent Hockey India chief, Dilip Tirkey, as well as the current World Cup team member and vice captain Amit Rohidas. Seventeen artificial turf pitches are currently being laid out in Sundargarh alone, one for each block of the region. For comparison’s sake, Mumbai, a metropolis with a population of over 21 million, has just two pitches. Both are in poor shape.

In 2018, Patnaik’s government stepped in as sponsor of both the men’s and women’s national hockey teams, in a five-year deal that cost $18.3 million. Such sponsorship is typically bankrolled by corporations; this was the first time a state government had taken over the reins. That year, Odisha hosted the men’s Hockey World Cup for the first time. In 2021, close on the heels of the Indian men’s bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Odisha renewed its sponsorship for another ten years.

Over the past decade, Odisha has slipped into the role of reliable sponsor, host and hockey capital. It started with the 2014 Champions Trophy, followed by the Hockey World League Final three years later. Between the 2018 World Cup and this year’s, the state was the venue for the International Hockey Federation (FIH) men’s series finals, the 2019 Olympic qualifiers and the 2020 Pro League. While the state’s devotion to hockey deserves plaudits, the situation also underscores that the sport has not traveled well recently to its former urban strongholds, missing an opportunity for fresh pockets and new fans.

“The great thing is hockey is in Odisha,” the former India hockey captain Viren Rasquinha told New Lines. “The not-so-great thing is it’s only in Odisha.”

For this World Cup, the state government built a 20,000-seat stadium from scratch in 15 months at the second venue in the western Odisha town of Rourkela (assumed to have been a decision taken with an eye on next year’s elections).

“It’s a smart move by Naveen to create a lasting legacy for himself through sport,” Banerjee told New Lines. “Odisha is a state with high unemployment and migration rates, and mega-events like the Hockey World Cup drum up collective pride among locals and leave an impression on everyone else looking in from the outside.”

According to the National Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2021 report by the Indian government’s think tank NITI Aayog, about 30% of Odisha’s population is poor, 37% are malnourished and nearly 20% have no access to maternal health, which is to say care during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. The state also has among the highest rates in the country of people without sanitation and cooking fuel facilities — 39.5% and 65.3%, respectively.

An outlay of over $122 million — roughly 16 times what Odisha spent on hosting the tournament five years ago — was made for the World Cup in the state’s $24 billion budget for 2022-23.

“If you look at the spending on the World Cup in the context of the entire budget, it’s not an awful lot given its returns,” Banerjee says. “It brings the state visibility worldwide and raises its profile. Sport can be low-hanging fruit, and no Indian politician has really harnessed it like Naveen has. He is excellent at creating spectacles and holding attention. What he’s done with hockey is remarkable.”

But Odisha is the exception rather than the norm.

It hasn’t always been this way in India. There was a time when hockey was popular in urban centers as well as smaller towns, and matches drew spectators in droves.

So absolute was India’s Olympic dominance in hockey at one point that it made its way into text books and quiz questions as the country’s national sport. A Right to Information (RTI) query from a 10-year-old girl in 2012, who had learned this in school and wanted to know how it came about, prompted the ministry of youth affairs and sports to offer an official clarification: Hockey is not India’s national sport. In fact, India doesn’t have an official sport.

Nonetheless, hockey was the sport in which India first sent out an official team to an international event, at the 1928 Olympics, when the country was still a British colony. Between that year and 1980, India would win six men’s hockey gold medals in 12 Olympic Games.

Such was the success that, when the Indian team returned from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico with a bronze medal, it was met with scorn. After the games, the players landed at New Delhi airport to a frugal welcome and scathing criticism. There were no arrangements in place for them to travel from the capital to their home cities in different parts of the country. The players were left to fend for themselves. The goalkeeper, Munir Sait, traveled from New Delhi to Central Station in Madras (now Chennai) in a crammed third-class (economy) train coach with his Olympic medal in his duffel bag. “We paid for our own tickets and somehow reached our hometowns,” he told New Lines. “No one even acknowledged that we’d won a medal. Of course, we too were crushed to have not done better. But we were treated like we’d committed a grave crime!”

Two years ago, Sait received an unusual request. As part of an invitation for him to preside as chief guest, a local sports club in Chennai asked whether he could bring his medal along for everyone to see. It was in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics that year. “Who would have guessed?” Sait chortled.

Until the change of playing surface (from grass to artificial turf) kicked in in the 1970s, India and Pakistan had been the presiding powers of the sport and each other’s fiercest rivals and nemeses. Matches between the two drew rapturous crowds on both sides of the border and spawned a generation of hockey lovers in the subcontinent. The former India captain Vasudevan Baskaran remembers players of both teams cussing heavily under their breaths and being barely able to stand the sight of each other when they met in the 1974 Asian Games final in Tehran. Four years later, a bilateral test series was held. The Pakistan team traveled to Bombay and Bangalore, following which the Indian side played in Karachi and Lahore. Pakistan won that series 3-1.

During the Bangalore match, Baskaran suffered a blow off Pakistan captain Islahuddin Siddique’s stick. “I started bleeding profusely and had to get eight stitches on my forehead,” Baskaran recalls. “I was almost certain it was intentional. My brief as left-back, after all, was to frustrate his scoring chances.” India lost that match 2-3. Soon after, India visited Lahore. “We played before a 40,000-strong crowd who cheered every through pass. The atmosphere was electrifying.” But Baskaran didn’t lose sight of revenge. “My smack on his forehead landed him with four stitches. My only regret then was that it was four less than mine,” Baskaran laughs. That tour, however, the former captain went on to recount, progressed from players hitting one another to dining together and getting to know one another’s families. “Islahuddin and I later laughed over what we’d done.”

Both India and Pakistan were also struggling at the time against a common foe — the artificial turf. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the fake-grass surfaces were used for the first time. India, which had won a World Cup only the year before, and seven Olympic golds until then, finished seventh. It marked the ascendancy of Europe and Australia’s faster, fitter players, as the pitch favored stamina over skill.

Baskaran captained the side that won India’s last Olympic hockey gold medal in Moscow, in a depleted field, in 1980.

Three years later, India brought home the cricket World Cup in 1983. It was a game-changer. Those living in large cities were among the first to switch to playing cricket. Others followed. The introduction of economic liberalization in the country in 1991 opened up greater employment opportunities and better wages. The urban youth was spoiled for career options outside sport. An already-struggling hockey movement fell behind. Bad governance and apathetic, entitled officials only compounded the sport’s problems.

In sharp contrast to Baskaran and Sait’s playing days, hockey in schools and colleges is today practically nonexistent, which has cut off an important talent supply chain. While there are academies at the grassroots level, the quality of coaching needs to move up more than a few notches to produce decent players. Only three states — Odisha, Punjab and Haryana — are currently churning out national players.

There is also something to be said about the endless tinkering with the sport by the FIH over the years. Changing the playing surface from grass to turf, doing away with the offside rule, splitting matches into four quarters and 60 minutes, as opposed to the earlier two halves and 70 minutes, are just some of the more salient examples.

While many of these changes were brought in with an eye on making the sport faster and more engaging, the end result has been to make it a fairly complicated sport, when compared to football, cricket or tennis.

For a casual viewer tapping in to watch the odd game, it can be somewhat confounding. Currently, the FIH is working on tweaking the rules of the sport’s core component, penalty corners, to make the set piece safer for defenders.

“Even for me, it’s hard at times to understand certain rules or figure out why the referee blew the whistle,” says Rasquinha. “If I find it difficult to keep up, imagine the average viewer. There has to be an effort to simplify the game. Right now, it’s too complicated to watch. The constant rule changes just don’t help.”

Any story about hockey in India must dwell on the inescapable legacy of “Chak De! India.” This 2007 Hindi-language sports film, loosely based on the Indian women’s hockey bronze at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, starring superstar Shah Rukh Khan as the coach, remains one of the best of its genre. It arrived at a time when no one in the country was really thinking or talking about hockey, let alone making movies about the women who play it.

“When I first looked at hockey, I realized there’s this depressing thing (camera angles) about the sport … nobody wanted to watch hockey,” said the film’s director Shimit Amin in an interview to Indian Express’s millennial-focused platform, InUth, in 2017. “I analyzed a little bit and realized there are no characters in hockey. People didn’t know who the captain of the team was because of the way the camera captures the sport. The ball speed is so fast that no trained cameraperson can actually follow it. The top shot angle is not interesting.”

What Amin did find compelling was the scope to tell a story. He had to figure out a way to break down the pace of the sport to convey the tension on the field to viewers. He did an impressive job of it and the movie turned out to be wildly successful. Its rousing “sattar minute” (“70 minutes”) locker room speech is now the stuff of legend (FIH reliably did a rule-change gotcha by changing the match length to 60 minutes) and the movie’s stirring title track continues to monopolize PA systems at all sports events featuring India. Amin deserves Indian hockey’s gratitude for forever etching the country’s go-to sports anthem with a sport that isn’t cricket.

If the Olympic medals awarded to the Indian badminton players Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu led to the mushrooming of thousands of academies and courts across the country, the epochal men’s hockey medal that arrived after a four-decade wait hasn’t quite had such a wholesale effect. The heroes of the Tokyo Olympics medal are not the household names one might have imagined them to become. An average Indian millennial, reared on cricket and European football, might struggle to name even two members of the current team — or identify the top forward if he sat opposite them at a Starbucks.

Indian hockey players earn no match fees. The primary source of sustenance for most are the jobs they hold at government-owned companies through sports quotas that allow them a monthly salary. There is also the occasional windfall that comes with medals. From the sport itself, they have little financial security to draw upon. This is in contrast to the thriving club culture in Europe. Among the top hockey nations, India — with its weak domestic structure and no functional league — is an oddity.

Rasquinha ventures that a lot more could have been done to cash in on the Olympic medal high. For instance, the men’s and women’s teams could have toured major centers in the country and played exhibition matches with domestic players, and conducted short training camps with kids across towns and cities, maybe even visiting schools and whipping up interest from Generation Z. Now, though, that moment may have passed.

If the Tokyo Olympics did ring in stardom for anyone, it was Neeraj Chopra. He became only the second Indian in history to win an individual Olympic gold, in a sport — the javelin throw — that was anything but popular. (The shooter Abhinav Bindra was the first, winning in Beijing in 2008.) Chopra didn’t leave it at that, following on with two great performances last year — a World Championship silver and then, less than two months later, India’s first Diamond League win. He is now the face of a battery of advertisements, endorsing everything from engine oil to tech companies.

For brands to buy into an athlete, their name, face and achievements must ring a bell. The only Indian sportsperson, outside cricket, to make the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes in recent years has been Sindhu. The 27-year-old former world champion and double Olympic medalist is today a major brand unto herself. She featured in the 15-member Forbes female athlete earners’ list led by the Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka last year. Her total earnings from the year were pegged at $7.1 million, nearly all of which came from brand engagements and endorsements.

“Things are so much better now, frankly,” said Rasquinha, who retired from hockey in 2008. “In my days, it was totally frowned upon if a hockey player became a star. The moment a player rose in stature, the administration turned insecure. There’s a stupid philosophy among Indian sports administrators in general that players can get too big for their boots. Probably because they’re wary of possible demands that might come with it. But what’s wrong with a player asking for what they deserve?”

The creation of an athlete’s brand value has much to do with visibility and dominance. Sindhu’s winning the major international titles and being counted among the best in the world through recent years adds hugely to her valuation. A core problem with sports like hockey is that the major tournaments happen far too infrequently to be able to sustain the momentum that may come with a one-off major success.

Predictably, one day after the World Cup ended in victory for Germany, India’s head coach Graham Reid was gone from the job. His contract had been due to last until next year’s Paris Olympics. Besides the Australian, the team’s analytical coach Greg Clark and scientific advisor Mitchell David Pemberton also tendered their resignations.

This was hardly surprising; if anything, it played to a well-worn script. Since 2009, eight different coaches (seven of them foreigners) have entered and exited the men’s head coach role. Under Reid, who in 2019 became India’s 26th chief coach in 25 years — the team brought home a medal at the Olympics after four decades, as well as silver place at the Commonwealth Games. Reid was — thanks in no small measure to the pandemic — the longest-serving coach of the men’s team in the past decade and also the most successful. The briefest run in this period (from January to June 2015) was that of Paul van Ass, who was fired by Hockey India just five months into his three-year contract. That was only one year ahead of the Rio Olympics.

Yet again, the team finds its processes upturned precariously close to major tournaments — the Asian Games is in seven months and the Paris Olympics in 17 months. India’s hockey bosses have to do better than knee-jerk, superficial calls that usually begin and end with the coach being turned into the fall guy after every debacle.

Over the past few decades, Indian hockey has battled the question of its relevance. But each time it was believed to be finished, there was a resurgence around the bend.

From the lows of not qualifying for the Olympics in 2008 to finding themselves on the podium 13 years later, it’s been a steady wave rather than a lightning bolt of transition for the Indian men’s side. It’s taken the grit of senior players, the spunk of young blood and over half a dozen coaches’ splintered philosophies.

But the Olympic medal from a year and a half ago may already be fading from the memory of the average Indian sports fan trying to keep up with packed cricket and soccer fixtures every week. A deep World Cup run at home, with national media in attendance and a few hundred thousand viewers watching from home, might have been the refresher Indian hockey needed at this point. It wasn’t to be. They were simply not good enough.

The shock expulsion flags two key areas of possible concern with the team — the visible dip in their physical fitness levels and the need for mental conditioning support. The strength and conditioning specialist Robin Arkell, who did impressive work on the team’s speed and endurance levels in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympic medal, is no longer around in the Indian camp. Indeed, Arkell is now part of the World Cup-winning German national team.

In the aftermath of their recent loss, Reid was forthright enough to admit it was largely on him that the team hadn’t sought out the services of a mental conditioning coach, saying, “I thought I had enough experience to be able to impart the sort of stuff we have been talking about.” He described it as the “silver bullet” they urgently needed.

Once they have gotten over their World Cup grief, the team has some soul-searching to do. They have climbed out of trenches of self-doubt before and may have to do it all over again. Another Olympics will be upon them as soon as next year. There’s little time to mope. To get any conversation on hockey going, results have to show up first. No one really wants to stick around for the commiserations.

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