Hockey Asia Cup 2017: Grass greener on the other side as artificial surfaces have become the norm in the sport

The introduction of artificial playing surfaces at the 1976 Montreal Olympics turned hockey upside down. Power became the signature weapon, pulverising opponents into submission. India and Pakistan complained that artificial surfaces gave an unfair advantage to European power over Asian skill. It would seem that the sudden slump faced by India, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan, was not a mere coincidence. For India, it was carnage.

Was this a conspiracy, or were there other factors at play? A former Canadian coach, Hargurnik Singh Sandhu, explained to me that even a rich country like Canada, with extreme weather conditions, find natural grass pitches expensive. On the other side of the planet, India and Pakistan have struggled to install expensive artificial surfaces. The argument runs various courses.

Representational image of hockey being played on an artificial pitch. Getty

Representational image of hockey being played on an artificial pitch. Getty

But broadly, those who embraced artificial surfaces had the most to gain. Being largely out of decision-making, the non-European first and second-tier hockey powers had failed to make a proper case for the retention of natural grass, killing the debate.

No proper evaluation of artificial surfaces seems to have even taken place. The International Hockey Federation, also known as FIH, simply went ahead and adopted them.

We can reasonably assume that, if at all there was a protest by India and Pakistan, in all likelihood it was met by silence, or a lack of a response. Where was the pressure or incentive to respond? Yet, paradoxically, the Europeans know that they need India, Pakistan and Australia for the future of hockey.

In hockey at the highest level, natural grass has become history, fit only for codification and celebration, no longer a living thing in actual play. Any talk of natural grass is met with a shrug, and there is no public articulation of grievances. In this losing bargain, discontent is sullen, silent and inconsequential.

Today, hockey’s top management sings paeans to artificial surfaces. This is what emerged from my discussion with Narinder Dhruv Batra, president of the FIH; Leandro Negre, its former president and President of Honour; Marijke Fleuren, president of the European Hockey Federation, and Tayyab Ikram, CEO of the Asian Hockey Federation. For them, hockey on grass is slow, boring, expensive, dangerous, and prone to scheduling disruptions. Such is the firmness of the presentations that it is difficult to dislodge these arguments from the public imagination.

Did the rivals of India and Pakistan steal control over rule-making and introduce artificial surfaces to undermine subcontinental ascendancy? This is difficult to prove. But humans artfully seek sectarian gain when possible. In hindsight, India and Pakistan could have hustled themselves into decision-making when they were the sport’s leaders. But they forgot the art of making friends and influencing people. Having an extended good run may have instilled complacency. A belief in better days to come might have lulled them into false hopes about a reversal to natural grass.

Perhaps a counter-narrative became difficult to construct because hockey was getting market-driven. But the marketing argument may not be all that straightforward. It is true that the slow game on grass has interruptions, while artificial surfaces make for smoother spectator viewing. But this does not explain why thousands of spectators came to watch India and Pakistan play during their champion days, when hockey was played on grass. Besides, spectators hardly ever fill up venues with artificial pitches.

Has grass hockey died? Can India use their recently-acquired financial muscle to win from the FIH one of the four major tournaments on grass? Will the ascendant European teams allow this? Are the Europeans just smug in their superiority on artificial surfaces, and resistant to playing on grass for fear of losing their domination of the game? Are India and Pakistan bluffing when they assert that they can defeat European teams on grass? Strangely, nobody asks these questions.

The seemingly irreversible move away from natural grass is a reaffirmation of the power structure of international hockey, where, as in international politics, powerful nations simply ignore protest. It is one thing to make noise, another to get heard, and still another to have the complaint acted upon. We see parallels in the conduct of diplomacy, where silence and ambiguity make a more telling point than agitated representations.

For the stalwart supporters of hockey on grass, the debate has lost its trail. The grass has become greener on the other side. Artificial surfaces are now regarded as the norm from which we cannot deviate. Whether it is tennis, or T20 cricket, or badminton, the motto is power, fitness and speed. It is the same for hockey. May be this is how sporting cycles operate, as part of the natural progression of a fitter and faster human species towards a mythical age of perfection.

Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador, and vice-president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.

Updated Date: Oct 13, 2017 15:36 PM

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