Indian hockey in a freefall

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By Anand Philar

Indian hockey has had a charmed life so far, but the clock is ticking and it sounded the loudest, much like Big Ben, during the London Olympics where a 12th place finish sent out another warning – Perform or Perish. It is time to act and not react or else, there will be no more comebacks.

In the past, Indian hockey somehow survived many a crisis, beginning with the fall from grace at the 1968 Mexico Games where for the first time, we finished outside of top two. The slide since then has been gradual with the odd success, like the 1975 World Cup win and the gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics only heralding a false dawn.

India’s hockey administrators, without vision or viable long-term plans, have been in deep slumber, living on reflected glory of the eight gold medals of the bygone era that has absolutely no connect to present day. It has come to such a pass that even a medal at the Asian Games or merely qualifying for the Olympics is cause enough for celebration! Such has been the steep fall.

The Indian team was projected as a sure bet for a medal after victories against club sides masquerading as national teams in the Olympic qualifier in New Delhi. Overnight, Sandeep Singh became an iconic drag-flicker, and yet, a few months later, he had just two conversions in six matches and from 21 penalty corners that India received at the Olympics. Our forwards were shown off as world-beaters and yet, in London, they could score a mere eight goals. The midfield and deep defence were hailed as “solid” and yet, they leaked 21 goals.

The post-Delhi celebrations also masked the inherent weakness of a side that had anything but class written over it. It was not as if the side lacked international exposure; rather, a majority of the players had been around for more than four to five years. Yet, Nobbs dubbed it an “inexperienced and young” side in an apology of an excuse.

Missing the 2008 Olympic berth kept India out of top level competition and that hurt Indian hockey like never before. Consequently, once in London for the Games, the Indian team was clearly out of its depth. The couple of close matches in the test event in June had lulled the team and Nobbs into believing that they were on the right track.

That being the scenario, it would be futile to kick a fallen man that is Indian hockey, but the game would be better served by some introspection and planning to get the sport back on its feet. No doubt, the London performance was an absolute disgrace, but that is history. The aim now should be to avoid similar ignominy and if Hockey India is serious in preparing for the 2020 Games (forget 2016 Rio), then the baby steps should be taken now.

Going by his post-Olympics interview, Nobbs comes across as a man perplexed by the succession of defeats that drove home the point in a telling fashion that Indian hockey has a lot of catching up to do. The only way out of the current mess is to get back to the drawing board and the sooner it is done the faster would be the recovery.

The writing was on the wall in 2006 when India finished 11th at the World Cup and fifth in the Asian Games, followed by the Chilean disaster as India failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. The hiring of Spaniard Jose Brasa subsequently did not help matters as India came in a poor eighth at the Delhi World Cup, but victory against Pakistan covered up an otherwise dismal performance.

The onus is now on Hockey India to set right matters, and truth to tell, conducting an inquiry serves little purpose apart from finding scapegoats. It needs no expert to ascertain the ills of Indian hockey. At the outset, the issue of dual authority (HI and IHF) should be sorted out. Unless the two bodies unite, there is little scope for the sport to thrive and grow.

The root cause for the present situation is the system that has the Indian team moving from one tournament to the next without a clear-cut long-term plan. Victories in low-level events such as the Azlan Shah or regional competition not necessarily endorse progress. The reference points are the Olympics and the World Cup.

To this end, India should first regain its spot in the elite Champions Trophy that will help the team to regularly compete with the best and improve. Though the FIH has grossly diluted the event by increasing the number from six to eight teams, the invitation to play in Melbourne later this year is a huge opportunity. India could still finish last, but it is a good start nevertheless.

A revamp of the London squad would help as only Sardar Singh and goalkeeper Sreejesh looked the part. Nobbs should come up with answers, not complaints and lame excuses. His criticism of senior players and the absence of “world-class players” only reflect his failure to assert his authority. Perhaps, a quiet word with his former teammate Ric Charlesworth would have better prepared Nobbs for his current assignment.

To say that Indian hockey is on a nosedive would be to state the obvious, but it is in the hands of those in control to arrest the freefall. Any more dithering would only lead to crash landing.

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