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Did Commonwealth Games Bring Indian Hockey Back On Track?

Did Commonwealth Games Bring Indian Hockey Back On Track?

Those who follow Indian sports might be surprised to learn that India’s national game is not cricket, but hockey.

And till about 30 years ago, the evidence was there for all to see. Thereafter, the decline was steep. Hockey got Europeanized – the use of artificial turf made it a much faster game, effectively shifting the emphasis from stick-work and artistry to speed and passing. In other words, fitness took precedence over skill.

The result was the drying up of medals in international tournaments. Hockey first featured at the Olympics in 1908, when England won.  It was next played in the 1920 edition, England won that too. Thereafter, the pre-war hockey golds were monopolized by India – playing under a British flag — in 1928, 1932 and 1936. When the Olympics resumed in 1948, India claimed the hockey gold again, making Dhyan Chand the only player in the history of the game to win four Olympic golds.

India’s domination continued after independence, and they won gold at the Olympics in 1952 and 1956. Pakistan who won silver in 1956 emerged as rivals and took gold at the 1960 edition of the games. India won it in 1964, and Pakistan won it back in 1968. The seventies saw a gold draught for both teams though Pakistan did win silver in 1972. India’s last gold at the Olympics came in the 1980 Moscow Olympics an event that the Caucasian hockey giants boycotted as did Pakistan.

The first hockey World Cup was played in 1971. The next three editions took place in 1973, 1975 and 1978, and the event was held every four years, thereafter. Pakistan made the inaugural cup their own and Holland took it in 1973. Then came India’s famous victory in Malaysia, in 1975, and that was the last time Indian hockey stood on top of the world. Artificial turf was introduced and has been blamed ever since for India’s decline.

But those who see the roots of India’s decline as a hockey superpower in the shift to artificial turf fail to explain why Pakistan who played the same kind of game with emphasis on skill and artistry adapted well to the new situation and continued to dominate. In fact, Pakistan won the next two world cups, in 1978 and 1982, the latter event hosted by India.  There was a temporary blip as Pakistan failed to win any medal at the 1986 edition, but went on to collect silver at the 1990 World Cup hosted in Pakistan, and gold at the 1994 edition.

India’s decline began in the 70s and Pakistan’s, two decades later. Are there any lessons for India, in this? There is a school of argument that contends that Pakistan’s hockey was administered by their army, and the team did best when they had military rule. There could be a grain of truth in this, as the Pakistan team did best in the 1980’s when they had relative political stability, and a military government under General Zia. During the same period, Pakistan did well in cricket, too.

The lesson that India can draw from Pakistan’s rise and subsequent fall from hockey grace is that performance improves when there’s good administration to back it. There’s no dearth of talent, as amply demonstrated in the commonwealth games, where India came back from a two-goal deficit to win the semi-final against England. All that’s needed is administrative will to back the talent. Can India build on the CWG success and reclaim their hockey supremacy? Time, as ever, will tell.