I was at the Bombay Hockey Association grounds in Mumbai to meet a friend of mine who plays hockey at the junior level, when the news of India’s failure to qualify for the Olympics broke out. The players on the ground were stunned. I talked to my friend in the evening and we discussed the shortcomings in the set-up that were the main reasons behind the decline of Indian hockey. Though I have never played the game at any level, but I do have decent knowledge about the sport and my views echoed with that of my friend’s.
I personally feel that this debacle is the best thing that could have ever happened to Indian hockey, if it is able to awaken the Indian Hockey Federation from its deep slumber. It was around this time last year that the Indian cricket team was eliminated from the world cup and angry fans performed the ‘last rites’ of the cricketers. However, the elimination made the bunch of individuals come together, regrouped and recouped, which lead to the Twenty20 World Cup win and the more recent victory in the series in Australia. Although it is futile to compare the two sports, one can discern that the BCCI focuses on the well-being of the players, as opposed to the IHF, which has a completely different story to tell.
Many former players and experts believe that it is high time that the top officials in the IHF should be sacked. They have destroyed the foundation of the game enough . The same officials have been heading the IHF for last 15 years and year after year, they have failed miserably to create a proper system to hone the talent of the players and acknowledge some serious drawbacks in the system. The Federation of International Hockey (FIH) stepped in as India lurched from disaster to disaster, promoting Indian hockey, but one year into the project, even they admitted that the IHF was just not working on resolving the problem areas identified by them.
The worse has happened and it has turned full circle. From here on, it will only get better since it can’t get any worse. We need some serious introspection. To be very honest, nobody fears the antics of our current hockey team. We played some poor and pathetic hockey against Great Britain but the major problem does not lie there. The trouble has been brewing for over 20 years now. We need to move on from the ‘glorious past’ to the present where there is no infrastructure at the grass root level, and, the lack of good coaches aggravates the situation.
As Viren Rasquinha, ex-captian of India wrote in the Indian Express, , “Children are not learning the right things and they pick up bad habits in technique — our man-marking skills, over-dribbling, etc. These are mistakes that go unnoticed and ignored at the domestic level, but they will be badly punished at the international level, more so in the crunch matches.”
We have miniscule number of Astro-turfs (the current surface hockey is played on) in the country (15 or 20) and you hardly get a chance to play on the Astro-turf at the initial level. The game that is played on grass and on the turf is totally different and requires different skill sets. Where do our boys hone their basics? The FIH appointed Ric Charlesworth as technical director but the officials have failed to utilise him as well. People like Charlesworth have good understanding of the game and can be very handy to guide the coaches at the junior level.
Indian boys have inborn talent, of some of the toughest skills in the hockey such as dribbling. But then dribbling is not the only skill. Where we lose out to the Europeans are the other skills, passing the ball on time, not holding on to it, and off the ball running,amongst others. The game has changed technically as well but we are still not willing to bring technology to our assistance. Our research into the technical aspects of the game lags far behind than that of the Europeans. Players and coaches should adopt modern tactics and techniques and the under-14, 16, and 19 level programmes need to be restructured.
The other shortcoming in our system is that we don’t have any National level hockey tournaments barring Premier Hockey League (PHL). The lack of competitive atmosphere makes our hockey scenario more pathetic. It will be good if we can dump the club culture and follow the state culture as done in cricket, so that the players get more exposure, along with opportunities.
The next thing that needs to be improved is the handling of players by the association. So far, we have seen some absurd selections taking place, and the treatment meted out to some of the top players is unacceptable. Whenever there is a debacle, the players are sacked en masse; coaches are axed and support staff are changed. There is no respect for the players. However, this is not the right way. The IHF needs to back its players and provide more facilities to improve their game. Was the Indian cricket team altered after the world cup debacle? The selection procedure should be more transparent, where the players are selected on the basis of their game, and not their ‘jack’ or other identities. In this tournament, we went without some of our top players such as Arjun Halappa, Sandeep Singh, etc. The federation has ruined the players like Gagan Ajit Singh and Deepak Thakur. Continuous sacking and chopping of the players lower their morale and it becomes difficult for them to bounce back.
The bottom line is that the top brass of the federation should be changed and the new regime should take over. The new regime should consist of players and experts who have a good knowledge of the modern game. Many of the fans feel that this is the death of the national game. There is no denying that the game is in dire straits, but all has not been lost yet. I see this loss scripting the re-emergence of Indian hockey.
Clarification: (I have made comparisons with Cricket because many feel that Cricket is detrimental for other sports. The fact is that if we win more games and tournaments and show our will to change the system for betterment, there is no shortage of the passion, fan following and money in our country.)
[Image courtesy: http://www.outlookindia.com/images/photoessays/india_south_korea_hockey_doha_SPE_20070115.jpg]