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Did Commonwealth Games Bring Indian Hockey Back On Track?
Those who follow Indian sports may be surprised to learn that India’s national game is not cricket but hockey.
And until about 30 years ago, the evidence was there for all to see. Then, the fall was steep. Hockey was Europeanized – the use of artificial turf made it a much faster game, effectively shifting the emphasis from stickwork and art to speed and passing. In other words, fitness took precedence over ability.
The result was a drying up of medals in international tournaments. Hockey first appeared at the Olympic Games in 1908, when England won. It was then played in the 1920 edition, which was also won by England. The pre-war hockey gold medals were then monopolized by India – playing under a British flag – in 1928, 1932 and 1936. When the Olympics resumed in 1948, India again won hockey gold, making Dhyan Chand the player the only one in the history of the game to win four Olympic gold medals.
India’s dominance continued after independence, and they won gold medals at the Olympics in 1952 and 1956. Pakistan, who won the silver medal in 1956, emerged as rivals and took the gold in the 1960 edition of the games. India won it in 1964, and Pakistan won it in 1968. The seventies saw a golden draft for both teams, although Pakistan won the silver medal in 1972. India’s last Olympic gold came at the Moscow Olympics 1980, an event that the Caucasian hockey giants boycotted like Pakistan.
The first World Cup of Hockey was played in 1971. The next three editions took place in 1973, 1975 and 1978, and thereafter the event was held every four years. Pakistan made its inaugural cup and the Netherlands lifted 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 since been blamed for India’s downfall.
But those who trace the roots of India’s decline as a hockey superpower to the switch to artificial turf fail to explain why Pakistan, which played the same kind of game with an 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 last event hosted by India. There was a temporary setback as Pakistan failed to win any medals in the 1986 edition, but went on to collect silver in the 1990 World Cup hosted in Pakistan, and gold in the 1994 edition.
India’s decline began in the 1970s and Pakistan’s two decades later. Is there a lesson for India in this? There is a school of argument that claims Pakistan hockey was administered by their military and the team did their best when they had military rule. There may be a grain of truth in this as the Pakistan team did best in the 1980s when they had relative political stability and a military government under General Zia. During the same period, Pakistan also did well in cricket.
The lesson India can draw from Pakistan’s rise and subsequent fall from hockey grace is that performance improves when there is good administration to back it up. There is no dearth of talent, as amply proved in the Commonwealth Games, where India came back from a two-goal deficit to win the semi-final against England. All that is needed is the administrative will to support the talent. Can India build on the CWG success and regain its dominance in hockey? Time, as always, will tell.
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