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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 up until about 30 years ago, the evidence was there for all to see. After that, the reduction was significant. Hockey was Europeanized – the use of artificial turf made it a much faster game, effectively shifting the emphasis from stickwork and artistry to speed and passing. In other words, fitness took precedence over skill.
The result was a drying up of the medals in international tournaments. Hockey first appeared in the Olympic Games in 1908, when England won. It was next played in the 1920 edition, which England also won. After that, the pre-war hockey gold was monopolized by India – playing under the British flag – in 1928, 1932 and 1936. When the Olympics resumed in 1948, India claimed the hockey gold again, making Dhyan Chand the only player 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 silver in 1956 emerged as contenders and took the gold medal in the 1960 edition of the games. India won it in 1964, and Pakistan back in 1968. The seventies saw a gold draft for both teams although Pakistan won silver in 1972. India’s last Olympic gold came at the 1980 Moscow Olympics an event where the Caucasian hockey giants boycotted as did Pakistan.
The first hockey World Cup was played in 1971. The next three editions were held in 1973, 1975 and 1978, and the event is held every four years thereafter. Pakistan made their first cup and Holland took 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 decline.
But those who see the roots of India’s decline as a hockey power in the move to artificial turf fail to explain why Pakistan who played the same type of game with an emphasis on skill and artistry adapted well to the new situation and continue 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 blip as Pakistan failed to win any medals in the 1986 edition, but went on to collect silver in the 1990 World Cup held in Pakistan, and gold in the 1994 edition.
India’s decline began in the 70s and Pakistan’s, two decades later. Are there any lessons for India, in this? There is a school of argument that argues that Pakistan’s hockey is administered by their military, and the team did best when they had military rule. There could 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 learn from Pakistan’s rise and subsequent fall from the hockey race is that performance improves when there is good administration to back it up. There is no shortage of talent, as was amply demonstrated 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 administrative will to support the talent. Can India build on the success of CWG and regain their hockey dominance? Time, as always, will tell.
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