In a cricket-mad country, hockey is looking to create an impact at an international level. We look at how the sport is making it’s way back to the top in India. Not so long ago, it is exactly where it reigned supreme.
Anyone would be able to remember the number of World Cups the Men In Blue have won, but notice the shocked expression on people’s faces when they learn that between 1928-1956 our national hockey team has picked up six consecutive Olympic gold medals, with the total tally amounting to eight gold, one silver and two bronze.
When you think about sports in India, even with the various leagues coming up, cricket ranks top of the pecking order for choosing a sport as a profession, picking up a hockey stick can be a brave decision. However, this wasn’t always the case. Before Europe dominated the sport, bragging rights were right here in the Indian sub-continent.
Yes, hockey ruled a long time ago and that golden era boasts players like ‘The Wizard’ Dhyan Chand. Scoring 400 international goals, he was conferred the Padma Bhushan award by the Government of India. The interesting thing is that ‘Chand’ is not part of his name. He used to practice in the moon light after completing his hours in the Army, resulting in his fellow players calling him chand, which in English translates to the moon.
Another core player of that time was Balbir Singh Sr. who was a part of three consecutive Olympic gold wins. In 1957, he was given the Padma Shri award and became the first sports personality to be honored with this prestigious title.
Leslie Claudius was a member of India’s hockey team that won the Olympic gold in 1948, 1952 and 1956, and silver in 1960. Even though he was a legend of the past, I’ll never forget the stories from my grandfather who always told us how Leslie firmly believed that any one could achieve their ambitions on the sports field with just a little hard work and that there was no substitute to training and competing with the same fervor. I was always told that he was born to play hockey and his achievements prove just that. Those stories even encouraged me to try my hand at hockey, until I got out of college and into, what most people now term as, ‘the real world’.
However, that was a glorious time when the world feared the Indian team as an opposition. The next decade saw Indian hockey take a few steps downwards and European nations rise to the top, even with superstars like Dhanraj Pillay, arguably one of the best forwards in the world of hockey. The former captain of India who was widely recognized for his dribbling skill, represented India in several Olympics and World Cups and captained the team to Asian Games (1998) and Asia Cup (2003) wins. This age also saw the likes of Ajit Pal Singh who was given Arjuna Award in 1970 and the Padma Shri award in 1992 for his contribution to Indian Hockey.
There were a lot of problems plaguing the sport. What was unfortunate was that the players weren’t in the news much but the rivalry between Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation made headlines over recognition of who will be the sole body to run the game in the country.
There were a lot of problems plaguing the sport. What was unfortunate was that the players weren’t in the news much but the rivalry between Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation made headlines.
This was also the perfect time for Shah Rukh Khan to star in one of the most inspirational sports-based moves in the country – Chak de India. The movie aimed at inspiring people with the same lessons that motivated me when I heard tales of Leslie Claudius and Dhyan Chand. It encouraged people to do, as SRK says in the movie, "Jo nahin ho sakta … wahi tho karna hai" (What cannot be done … is exactly what must be done). We can credit the movie with bringing the focus back on Indian hockey over politics in Indian hockey.
And after all the controversies and ignorance, hockey in our country was a global topic yet again. The launch of Hockey India League (HIL) saw a number of international stars and domestic players compete in a cash-rich tournament designed to bring about about a mix of entertainment and sports, similar to the already established Indian Premier League (IPL).
We saw a new team India being formed, one which could compete and achieve recognition across the globe.We got a glimpse of a team we would love to see again during the Hockey World League in the last year where India made it to the finals in Raipur as well as qualified for the Olympics in Rio later this year. The team under skipper Sardar Singh along with Rupinder Pal Singh, Akashdeep, Sreejesh and a few youngsters termed the future of the sport in India, beat the Netherlands in what was considered a David vs Goliath battle to win the bronze medal. A lot of these players have come out of the league and gone on to represent India. So from a time where the world feared India to a time where the world snubbed India, we’ve reached a stage where everyone now wants to be in India.
While we wish our boys the best of luck in Rio, here’s hoping their preparation in the on going HIL will give them the fire power to come back with a medal. And even if they don’t, here’s hoping the team gets welcomed and acknowledged in a manner that makes them want to continue competing for our great nation.
–By Adrian Remedios