In the immediate aftermath of that frenetic game of hockey — defined perhaps by India doing to Germany what had often been done to them; coming back from a two-goal deficit — head coach Graham Reid was asked if he understood how much this medal meant to a country whose memory of Olympic triumph is three generations past. “I don’t understand… but I do,” Reid said. His wordplay is understandable. Indian hockey’s paradox is in its starvation of success and its support.
“It’s all about the process,” former India forward Tushar Khandker says. “The medal is the end result. It’s one of the greatest days in Indian hockey, but if you look at the larger picture only, then you will miss the reality. You have to look through the microscope at everyone who has worked through different parts of the system to procure this medal for India.” In essence you have to look at where this victory came from, built over years and numerous failures.
In 2016, India won the Junior Men’s World Cup in Lucknow. Seven players from that squad (Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Nilakanta Sharma, Sumit, Gurjant Singh, Mandeep Singh, and Simranjeet Singh) were in the team that won bronze in Tokyo. The seven were inducted into the system at an early age, and despite the various coaching and system changes, became an integral part of the national setup.
And while these youth programmes have paid dividends within five years, Khandker cautions against slackness. “These 18 boys have won our first medal in 41 years,” he says. “If we want to ensure this isn’t a once-in-four-decade phenomenon, then we have to produce 1,800 players all the time, create infrastructure, so that we are constantly challenging at the top of the ladder.”
From a sport that was played across the country, hockey has over the years reduced to pockets. States like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra that were represented in an independent India’s first team aren’t providing players anymore. But where some have folded, others have risen.
Investment, with a long-term plan, state support and interest, has led to creation of mechanisms for success. KC Choudhary, a state sports department coach in Bhubaneswar, testifies to the efforts put into increasing participation, infrastructure, scouting and coaching in Odisha at the grassroots.
“The state government has been very proactive in creating funding for hockey here,” he says. “Just simply look at Sundargarh, the hotbed of Odia hockey. A few years back, it didn’t have a proper ground. Now there is an astro turf, proper training facilities… we scout and pick up a lot of talent from there.” It helps, of course, to have famous alumni.
Dilip Tirkey, former captain of the Indian team and one of India’s most capped players, is from Sundargarh. He says state support and federation initiative turned the tide on what was a rough phase for Indian hockey. “Take the example of how they have prepared over the past year,” he says. “Locked in for so long in one place, training every day, given the facilities to prepare without any distraction. It is a huge change from the past.”
And while the Government of Odisha’s active involvement in sponsoring the team has been well documented, Choudhary says this success may provoke more investment. “Maybe after this there will be an uptick in support from corporations, but in honesty, one can’t really say.”
In the short-lived experiment that was the Hockey India League (HIL), many companies (Jaypee, Wave Group, IDCO and MCL, to name some) bought and put together teams across the country. Well compensated and sponsored, the rosters were filled with world-class foreign players — ones often credited with enhancing the skills of domestic players immensely. As much as the league benefited Indian hockey, the visibility and money also helped the global game. A foreign player, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “while standards in the European leagues were higher, the compensation in India made it more than worthwhile to put your name into the auction”. Foreign players with international experience earned anywhere between $50,000 and $100,000 for two months’ of work. After five years of differing intensity, the experiment ended when Hockey India decided to review the event. The reality, many sources claimed, was that many cash-strapped franchises decided to clamp the purse shut.
It could’ve been another death blow for Indian hockey, but then advantage always accumulates. The HIL had caught mainstream attention, and academies, schools and hockey coaches had seen an uptick in their numbers. Where some entities such as Coal India pulled out, others like Cairn India (2014-17) and the Odisha government joined in.
Multiple players employed with different corporations in India testify that support has always extended to Indian hockey in different ways. Five players in the Olympics squad are employed by BPCL; many others are with other oil corporations, public sector units, Punjab Police and the Railways. The employment guarantees regular pay and is one simple way to not just promote but also encourage more youngsters to keep at the sport despite the difficulties of sustaining themselves at its upper echelons constantly.
And still, everyone agrees that to ensure this success endures, more is necessary, especially at the grassroots.
On a winter afternoon in 2016, standing on his terrace in Lucknow hours before India took on Belgium in the Junior Hockey World Cup final, Ravinder Pal Singh, a member of the last Indian team to win gold at the Olympics (1980), sighed and admitted hockey had moved on. “Hum thoda peeche reh gaye hain (we’ve been left behind a bit),” he said, “But it doesn’t matter. Humare khoon mei hockey hai. Meri umeed hai ki humarey jeevan mei Bharat ek aur medal toh jeetega (but never mind; hockey is in our blood. The hope is that India will win another medal in my lifetime). I hope we will be a force again.” A few hours after his prophetic words, inspiration was delivered: India won the Junior World Cup. And where an earlier victory (2001) was squandered away by administrative mismanagement, this time the pieces were in place for sustained success, one that arrived on August 5, 2021, with bronze in the Olympics – the country’s first medal in 41 years.
Ravinder Pal Singh passed away on May 10 this year, after contracting Covid-19 during the peak of the second wave. His prediction was off by three months. It’s time to ensure his hopes endure.