The death of Balbir Singh Sr -- three-time Olympic gold medallist between 1948 and 1956 -- on Monday put Indian hockey's golden era, when they won six consecutive gold medals, top of the mind again. After 1956, there have been only two more hockey golds, in 1964 and then from a depleted field in 1980, plus one World Cup win. India had legacy, heritage, a bubbling talent pool; where did it all go?
Pay half-attention to the idea and random words will float into millennial consciousness: Artificial turf, fitness, coach sackings, bickerings. Better to set those vague notions aside and talk freely. From the beginning.
What's the first question in your mind?
Did anyone see this decline coming? When did the slide start?
Slowly at first, marked by a depleting talent pool.
At the height of the country's hockey success, the national team represented all of India. The first teams after independence had a generous mix of regions and communities within the squad, who came from everywhere. The central provinces, where Dhyan Chand and his family came from. The Kodavas of Karnataka played it, the Goans on the west coast played it. The Parsis. Even the Anglo-Indian community provided several impact players to Indian Olympic-winning teams from 1928 right up to 1948. Post-independence, they migrated to countries like Australia, Canada and Spain and continue playing and coaching there.
Hockey was as much a sport for the masses in India as football, both in cities as well as in smaller urban centres. India international Ashok Kumar, Dhyan Chand's son, remembers kids playing hockey on the road, gravel, alleyways and even inside their homes. Former India captain Viren Rasquinha has noticed that traditional supply centres of the sport like Bengal, Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have stopped producing players with the regularity they once did. Punjab today dominates the core of national team players.
Where did the rest of the players go?
The Anglo-Indians of course left the country, their representation reducing drastically with each Olympic cycle from 1948 onwards. The Parsis stopped playing as they too migrated or went into business. The Kodavas turned to their coffee estates, a more profitable venture than full-time sport. The others moved to different sports with better opportunities. Post-1983, when India won the cricket World Cup, those from centres like Calcutta and Bangalore migrated to cricket. Post-1991, when the country's economy began opening up, people in general found better employment opportunities and stopped playing sport on the scale they once did. Hockey has stopped being the first-choice sport for the best athletes in the country.
"Like how West Indies' cricketers went into football and basketball, India's best athletes went into cricket and now sports like badminton, boxing, wrestling." Viren Rasquinha
Did artificial turf really kill Indian hockey?
In the first 10-15 years, the surface was a factor, but after that it was something else. In Montreal '76, for the first time in the Olympics, the organisers put down an artificial surface that was easier to maintain than grass. The ball zips around more on turf as compared to grass, rendering skills, which teams like India and Pakistan were known for, less important than speed and fitness. Ashok remembers the Indians going to Montreal 'with zero exposure to the turf'. They played with wooden sticks against opposition nations that had moved on to fibreglass and carbon sticks, which are the norm now.
Surely you're joking?
Unfortunately, no. Remember this was the 1970s, India didn't have any artificial turfs. In preparation, Ashok says, the National Institute of Sport (NIS), Patiala, tried to simulate an artificial surface by shaving off the grass and covering it with cowdung because it was believed this was how turf would behave. The Indians played with leather balls, and they didn't have the right shoes or the right sticks. For the first time in their Olympic history, India finished outside the podium, at seventh.
This is terrible, but it's been a long time since 1976. Couldn't we adjust?
Obviously not. Look at Rasquinha's international career a quarter of a century later. He too began playing on mud and grass in Mumbai. He first played on turf at the age of 16. He retired from international hockey in 2008, by when, he reckons, India would have had 35-40 artificial turf grounds, barely half of them in prime condition. His club in Stuttgart alone had four such grounds in a better state. The number of artificial surfaces in India has now risen to about 200 over the past decade, but it's still not comparable with the biggest hockey centres in countries like Australia, Netherlands and Germany.
Logically, our standards should have improved once more kids began playing on turf, shouldn't they?
Yes, but there was also another factor coming into play at the time: Rule changes. Indian hockey, Pakistan's hockey and from there the rest of Asian hockey, was always identifiable for the emphasis on individual flair, artistry, dribbling, dodging and feints. It was the crowd-puller at international matches. A raft of rule changes in world hockey by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) ended up blunting that advantage. The most significant of those was the abolition of offside in 1992, which gave foreign teams that didn't always have good dribblers new avenues to scoring. It introduced a level of parity in attack, which India again took time to adapt to.
Between then and now, only Pakistan won a bronze medal in Barcelona 1992 and gold at the 1994 World Cup. India haven't even been to the semi-finals of either a World Cup or an Olympics since 1980. Asia's success has come through the fast, physical hockey of the South Koreans, who were originally coached by a South Korean who'd learnt his stuff at NIS Patiala.
Seems like Indian hockey was doomed from the start..
Wait, there's more. India's best performances came in an era when teams were required to field their starting XI throughout the 70 minutes. It meant India's quality could make the opposition suffer. Not the rolling substitutions of today, which keeps players fresher and lets coaches adjust tactics. The emphasis and requirement of quality dribbling was further reduced due to the abolition of the offside rule and by allowing overhead balls, previously considered dangerous play, as long as the receiver was five yards from his/her opponents. Ashok says modern hockey has become a 25-yard game, where you need only bother about your own 25 yards and that of the opponent; the 50-yard space in the middle is wasted completely in modern hockey.
But it's not like it was done overnight. Why didn't we keep in step?
We were fretting about the surface and rules for too long. India stagnated, while the rest of the world kept improving. Rasquinha puts it down to the absence of quality coaching. It may have improved in the last five years, but he says the coaching dished out to talented Indian teenagers is about 15-20 years behind the times. A 14-year-old from India might be at par with the best in the world in his age group. When he steps into the senior team, he quickly realises that the best teams will punish each of his mistakes in a match with a goal. Plus, he suggests, we also take into account nutrition, fitness, recovery and intelligent usage of rolling substitution. Even if we consider ourselves just one percent behind the rest of the world in these factors, Rasquinha says, it becomes four-five percent per player.
"Multiply that by 16 players. In a team sport, those gaps are harder to bridge."
Wow. This looks like people sleeping on their job for about, what, fifty years now? Okay let's look at post-liberalisation, let's make it, three decades or so?
Everyone moans about cricket, but administratively hockey has been damaged at every level -- grassroots to elite -- by short-sighted administration. For example, the men's team have had seven different coaches since the 2014 Asian Games, the last time they won a major medal. In fact, cricket makes for an excellent example of going in the opposite direction. Crowds of the same numbers used to turn up at cricket and hockey. If you're looking for a parallel for Indian hockey, Rasquinha reminds us, think of West Indian cricket and how its supply line of talent dried up. Like their cricketers went into football and basketball, India's best athletes went into cricket and now sports like badminton, boxing, wrestling. Sport is cyclical, but professional sport punishes those waiting for cycles to pass.
In real terms, both Ashok and Rasquinha, players from two generations, believe a weakened domestic structure has only added to the problem. Rasquinha says the absence of strong state units of the central governing body is holding the game back from being spread to more centres across the nation.
Fortunately, there appears to be a drive to professionalise the sport in India at the moment. The head of the FIH is an Indian, no other country still can generate numbers and excitement of the sport as India can. But there's a lot of work to be done on the ground. The more the ego-based decision-making, the further away we go from international hockey success.
So, no Olympic gold medals in the near future then?
Let's be reasonable and look at an Olympic semi-final spot to start with.
(With inputs from Sharda Ugra)