If it can be argued that one humiliating loss is enough to kill the culture of a great game in a country, it stands to reason that one spectacular victory can also be its revival.
Indian hockey, already on slow poison, died one December afternoon in 1982, when the team lost in the finals of the Asian Games. Now, on another December evening in 2016, can India's victory in the hockey junior World Cup final become its rebirth?
But first, a bit about the demise of Indian hockey, an obituary that many Indians may not have had the opportunity to read.
In the 1982 Asian Games final, India met with arch rivals Pakistan. Back then, hockey, like cricket later, was the symbol of Indian pride. In a country deprived of sporting glory, the legend of hockey was the perfect metaphor for a country trying to hold its head high on the world stage. Its stars, Zafar Iqbal and Mohammad Shahid, were extensions of India's honour.
India raced to the finals, decimating every opponent by huge margins in the group stage, scoring 37 goals and conceding just one. The team's performance on home ground, the euphoria of holding a successful Games and of winning 13 gold medals, gave Indians the hope that a win in the hockey finals, by beating Pakistan, would be the crowning glory.
So, on the appointed day in Delhi, under a clear blue sky, thousands gathered to watch India take on Pakistan. Among the guests was former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was hoping, perhaps, to give away the gold after the war was won.
It was not to be. After scoring the first goal through a penalty stroke and triggering raucous premature celebrations across the country, India lost 1-7 to Pakistan, whose forwards attacked the Indian half like a cavalry on a roll. The prime minister, stunned by the humiliation, left midway; fans started crying and the mood quickly turned funereal. That day, stoves were not lit in many Indian households. Hockey died that day.
This stipulation, thus, gives rise to a pertinent question: Was Indian hockey reborn in Lucknow on Sunday when India beat Belgium to become the first nation to win the hockey junior World Cup at home?
For any game to prosper, two factors are vital. One, a sizeable following – a committed base of obsessed fans. And two, a team that has the ability to beat any rival and perform consistently.
At Lucknow, it became obvious that Indians still love their hockey. On the day of the final, Lucknow's Dhyan Chand Stadium was spilling over with spectators. As The Indian Express points out: "It was a record turnout for a junior World Cup match, forcing the organisers to open sections of the stadium which were covered until Sunday, for the fear that everyone may not accommodated. They could’ve built a couple of more tiers and still run short of space to accommodate people."
That Indian hockey is on the upswing is apparent. Over the past few years, the Indian team has eclipsed all its Asian rivals, racing ahead of Pakistan, demolishing Malaysia and South Korea, who after the highs of the 80s and the 90s appear to be in terminal decline.
But, a big-bang moment required to put the game back on top of popular agenda – like the 1983 cricket World Cup win – has evaded hockey. Even at the recent Rio Olympics, India played a good brand of attacking hockey to reach the knock-out stages, only to be subsequently thwarted by Belgium, the emerging hockey power-house.
The junior team's victory could change all that. Already, many rival teams are in awe of the Indian team. As The Indian Express adds, many coaches were amazed by the Indian team's speed, fitness and their lightening fast counter-attacks: "India have played with such ‘ridiculous pace’ (as described by England coach Jon Blebby), especially on counterattacks, that most defences have found it tough to contain them."
But the defining moment of the coming-of-age of Indian hockey was the first goal scored by Gurjant Singh. In the first quarter of the game, Singh trapped a ball scooped from the half-line, receded to the corner of the striking circle, and with his back to the goal, reverse-flicked it into the goal, making the commentators scream, 'oh, that's a miracle goal.'
The miracle may indeed be happening. Sandeep Dwivedi, sports editor of The Indian Express said, "This is a team that can dominate the kind of hockey that is played on astro-turf with its fast, relentless attacks that come in unending waves and score from unexpected angles and positions."
The good news for Indian hockey is that some of these players would soon replace the ageing players in the senior team and give a new push to India's quest for glory. The current Indian coach, Roelant Oltmans, who thankfully has got a long stint in charge, could soon get a set of players used to not just playing high-octane, high-caliber hockey, but who are also used to winning.
Young Indian players have clearly benefitted immensely from the Indian Hockey League. Playing with and getting coached by the best from across the world, access to professional physios, psychologists and the money that is flowing into the game have moulded the next generation of hockey players into top-class athletes and winners.
In 1982, when Indian lost in the Asiad finals, Mir Ranjan Negi, the goalie who watched helplessly as Hasan Sardar, Mohammad Hanif, Samiullah and Kalimullah combined to humiliate India in front of the prime minister, argued that their team may have been hypnotised by someone called Iqbal from Pakistan.
Though that particular theory may be just a figment of Negi's imagination, it seems that the spell Indian junior hockey players have caste on their rivals is indeed real. It augurs well for the future and sounds like a requiem for the ghosts of 1982.
Updated Date: Dec 19, 2016 16:32:17 IST