Thursday, 19 May, 2022
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With Tokyo Olympics, Indian hockey has gone back to the ‘bronze age’ with golden era in sight

India, hold the hockey high. With Tokyo bronze, national sport has just got its pride back.

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The image of P.R. Sreejesh perched at the top left of the crossbar, after India won the bronze medal in men’s hockey at Tokyo Olympics is one that won’t fade away soon from the memory of Indians. It took 21 years of the Ernakulam-born goalkeeper’s career before he could literally ‘save’ a podium finish for India at the Olympics. With that ‘save’, India got its pride back after four decades. The bronze after defeating the mighty Germans is no short of redemption, rather a rebirth, as Sreejesh himself put it.

And that is why, Indian hockey is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

“Yeah ….. it tastes salty, Yeah …. I remember, it’s my sweat from the last 21 years,” said Sreejesh, the former captain and the senior most member of the squad whose career may now be in its twilight but has given Indian hockey and the fans a new burst of energy.

The Indian women’s team’s close finish in Tokyo cannot be a coincidence. It is characteristic of a change that was underway for some time now, away from the glare of a cricket-hungry media to serve a cricket-hungry janta. The players’ performance is a reciprocation, and a necessary one at that. A sport’s success and popular support have a symbiotic relationship. The journey of cricket between 1983 and now is a prime example.

To continue persevering the national sport all these years despite inadequate attention in a country of cricket is a result of the grit shown by both the men and women’s hockey teams this Olympics.

Also read: Indian hockey teams’ Olympic wins are a sign that a deeper, positive nationalism exists

The fall before the rise

Today’s national celebration was the norm in yesteryears when it comes to Indian hockey. We were at the top of the world for nearly four decades before the four-decade-long drought hit the sport. Despite this domination at one point, hockey never really picked up, like cricket did—in the gullies, in the parks, on the streets, on the terrace; 22-yard or not, the game somehow trickled in, space created. Also, the popular narrative of cricket being the enemy of hockey, in both India and Pakistan, is a simplistic argument. There are many other factors that contributed to the game’s decline.

Hockey is a completely different ballgame. Good ol’ hockey requires its designated space, which perhaps eluded many people from picking it up in the same way as gully cricket or street squash.

The game has undergone many changes and has had a direct bearing on India’s decline as a hockey superpower. A quicker pace with the turf changing from natural grass to AstroTurf, two halves turning into a 4-quarter game, dribbling replaced with a drag-flick, fewer whistles and the off-side rule being abolished.

All this has made the game quicker, many say, a departure from the subcontinental style of hockey when India and Pakistan dominated the game. However, the drag-flick has also led to the rise of Gurjit Kaur, the designated drag-flicker of the Indian women’s hockey team, whose skills would make the magician of hockey, Dhyan Chand, known for his dribbling, proud.

Also read: ‘Indians first’, says Twitter after Amarinder post on ‘Punjab players’ in Olympic hockey team

The moments that define

The India-Australia women’s match, one could argue, was a script better than Chak De! It is often a match, a shot, a move, or a session of play that becomes the defining moment for a game and its followers. And this is exactly what this match has done for the game in India.

The 1-0 scoreline doesn’t measure the margin of difference between the way the two teams played. A flick from Vandana Katariya that got deflected from Rani Rampal’s stick nearly hit the goalpost. And when the drag-flick by Gurjit finally went in, Salima Tete’s hug to Laremsiami captured the journey of the Indian women’s hockey team that had only qualified for the first time in 36 years last Olympics, and raised the bar this time, just short of a medal, losing the bronze match to Great Britain.

The journey for both the teams (women and men), however, was not easy. Skipper of the men’s team Manpreet Singh had earlier told ThePrint that the postponement of the Olympics did impact the team’s preparation. To up the morale again was a big challenge. The women’s team has stories of players fighting the odds. 19-year-old Lalremisiami had shown up for a match that had to decide India’s qualification for the Tokyo games — barely a couple of days after losing her father.

Also read: Slushie machines to megalitres of disinfectants, Tokyo Olympics are a logistical nightmare

From a superpower to a contender

From Dhyan Chand’s dribbling to Balbir Singh’s centre-forward game, Mohammad Shahid and Zafar Iqbal’s deadly partnership and Dhanraj Pillay’s ability to pick the perfect pass, India always stood out. The decline began from the 1968 Olympics when the team failed to win a gold medal and had to settle for the bronze.

Many have attributed this to the changing nature of the game, which supposedly favours European players who have stronger legs and are better-equipped for a counter-attack and longer passes, and are stout compared to India’s offensive game. But it is the politics in Indian hockey, mismanagement and perhaps a neglect of the sport that equally contributed to it being sidelined.

Now, with coaches like Sjoerd Marijne and Graham Reid, a more professional approach to the sport is being adopted. A podium finish for the men and a near podium-finish for the women’s team is the push India needed to show that it is so much more than a one-sport nation. It gives the national sport its due.

A cartoon showed Major Dhyan Chand showing his hockey stick (the highest form of respect) to the men and women’s players. While former Indian skipper Dhanraj Pillay said: “Words fail me as I try to compose my emotions.”

From here on, one can only hope that more youngsters will say I want to be like Manpreet Singh, Rani Rampal, Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Sreejesh in the same breath as they take the names of Virat Kohli, K.L. Rahul, Yuvraj Singh and others.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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