Hockey Junior World Cup: Why India’s win doesn’t mean the game is catching on in the country

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The Indian team celebrates after winning the trophy for the second time. PTI

Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, once, fancied himself as the savior of Indian hockey. To give the devil his due, the national team won the 1998 Asian Games, the 2003 Asia Cup and the 2001 Junior World Cup under his regime. KPS had everything going for him – personality, cult status, a name that made sponsors pause enough to sign cheques. Yet, for all the love and attention that he showered on the senior team, his attention span towards re-working junior and inter-university hockey was as good as asking him to be a teetotaler for a day.

In 1997, when the Indian junior team was plodding their way to the team bus, having lost the Junior World Cup final 2-3 to Australia, KPS sat addressing a media press conference at the Milton Keynes Hockey Stadium. To a question on whether there should be a junior hockey league or a much more professional college hockey, his reply showed a mindset most Indian sports administrators suffer from – vertigo. The University Of Maryland Medical Center defines vertigo as, “the perception of motion when no movement is present.” Gill’s reply was: “There is no need for a league. Players are coming from all over the country to play hockey. It’s just a matter of time before we start winning at the top level.”

Four years later at Hobart, India won the Junior World Cup. But that in a way has always been low-lying fruit. Nobody addresses the issue of placings at the World Cup or the Olympics. Since 1980, either at the World Cup or the Olympics, India has never reached the semifinals. The simple math here is – the middle ground between winning a Junior World Cup and the Olympics or the World Cup is not being bridged.

In the euphoria that now follows the win at Lucknow, there is a good chance that Gill’s mistakes will be repeated. In a week or so, the victory over Belgium will be forgotten in a hail of laudatory quotes, the senior team will be back to training for another tournament and a new team will be assembled for the next junior World Cup. The media will write about Harjeet Singh’s humble background and that he comes from Kurali. But to use Harjeet’s fame as a World Cup winner and install an astro-turf at Kurali will not have any takers.

Forgotten are the universities and college where the sport is dying or extinct. Modern day sports analysts question whether thousands of players are required to create an Olympic gold medal winning team. They, of course, point to South Korea under Kim Sang-Ryul which picked up the silver at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. That Korean team was carved out from a group of 40 players; Korea probably had 100 odd serious players in the league.

Rajinder Singh Sr, who coached the junior team to the World Cup title in 2001 and also the 2003 Asia Cup title when India beat Pakistan in Kuala Lumpur, doesn’t believe there would be long-term benefits. “It will be forgotten in a week or so,” he says. “And the same system will be back. Nobody will spend time to use this win to create a lasting impact.” Rajinder, who was part of the 1980 Moscow Gold medal winning team and is also one of the very few to coach a school, Union Academy, to the Junior Nehru Cup title, believes neglect at the school and college level has virtually ended grass root level growth. “We as a nation always want to look from the top down but not the other way,” he explains. “In the last 25 years, has anybody prepared a blue-print on how to revive university hockey again? Yes, there is the Champions College tournament from the Nehru Hockey Society but where and who knows about the inter-university hockey that at one point was the only source of almost every Olympian who played for India.”

Things do change in the world of sport and in India, academies came in. “Of course, academies have done a good job,” says Rajinder. “And one must wonder that without these private academies where would Indian hockey be? But if you invest money into the college and university level, increase awareness and appoint the right people as coaches, Indian hockey would be back at the top.”

Mohammed Riaz, who played the 2000 Olympics, feels universities that are showing good results need turfs. “You cannot get away from the fact that the sport needs modern infrastructure and a proper science that is at work on a daily basis. We cannot be hostage to the four-year cycle of World Cup or the Olympics. This is a daily grind and we are not doing it.”

Riaz, in fact, says that quality players can be seen during the first and second year of college before they start off on their professional courses and the sport loses them. “I know so many good hockey players who left the sport,” he says. “Those are the players you need to tap, give scholarships so that they remain in the system and you have 100 quality players to choose from. Not just 30 or 35.”

Given his accomplishment of taking a school to the top, Rajinder believes the development of sports schools is a must. Every state must have a sports school with state-of-the-art infrastructure. “Bring a foreign coach and put him in charge of every sports school and see the development that will follow. Put 8-10 Indian coaches under him. Get every kid to study during the day and they play different disciplines early morning and evening.”

Rajinder believes in the organisation of talent. “You need to look at the system internally,” he says. “Rectify it from the inside and you will have an assembly line of players or champions in each discipline.” At the moment, it’s a kick and start policy. There are no top coaches in the country. The easy fix has always been to spend money on appointing coaches at the top but never adequately pay coaches at the bottom of the ladder. “By the way, all these players you see coming from below have been coached or not?” Rajinder asks. “But you start praising these very players after they start winning at the international level. Give the coaches some benefits at the lowest level and the system will be a lot happier.” Gurjant Singh who scored in the semifinals and final of the World Cup was a part of Sher e Punjab team that won the inaugural World Series Hockey tournament. Rajinder was the coach.

Some of hockey’s problems come from the sport itself. It’s complex and complicated. Fans at times, rather most of the time, don’t understand the ruling. That’s why penalty corners are popular. They are easy to understand and goals are followed by stadiums erupting. Hockey India needs to use the Junior World Cup win to spread the gospel of the sport. Rajinder is a little let down that he went to watch the final without an invitation from Hockey India. “But that’s not a problem,” he says. “There are bigger legends of the sport in this country and it would have been wonderful if the top 20-30 players had been invited, flown down for the final. Even the media would have been happy as they would have got reactions from Olympians who have reached the pinnacle of this sport.”

Horse racing was losing fan support in the United States of America; fans were dwindling as other sport attracted the new generation of smart-phone wielding fans. The Jockey Club, the governing body of horse racing commissioned McKinsey to compile a report. It was found that over half of all racing fans started following the sport before 1990, and the number of new fans the sport gained appeared to be outpaced by the number of those who die. Similar issues need to be tackled in India. The domestic league, HIL, needs to be taken to smaller towns; to ignite interest and keep the spark burning. Bhubaneshwar was a classic example of how infrastructure could create interest.

After all, we don’t want to wait another 15 years before India wins another Junior World Cup.

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