The peculiar case of Indian hockey where culture opposes hard grind of strategic planning

As I write this, I worry about Indian hockey. Questions swirl in my mind. It has a peculiar trajectory, being a madhouse of seasons that do not move in sequence. Spring is followed by a dark winter, with no summer or autumn in between. It goes into free fall, yet rises from the ashes to occupy some limelight, and then falls again. This is the unending circle, like the Hindu conception of time, moving like a wheel, without a destination.

The peculiar case of Indian hockey where culture opposes hard grind of strategic planning

India lost their Asian Games semi-final to Malaysia, and it resulted in a series of knee-jerk reactions from Hockey India. AP

Before the World Cup, I kept my secrets and fears to myself because I did not want to write something unsettling. Let me share a few of the concerns I had felt before the World Cup.

In the last few years, Indian players had been boastful ("my blood boils"- P.R. Sreejesh on playing Pakistan). This was a pantomime hero's tribute to India's raucous and jingoistic politics. Today, Sreejesh is a quiet man. There is no longer the bravado that defined his personality not so long ago.

Before the World Cup, I worried about Sreejesh's ability to do the stellar acts he had done in the past. He was no longer the same force, remaining untested after injury, and a long lay off. The management was tricked by reputation. Suraj Karkera had done reasonably well at the Asia Cup and World League Finals in 2017. Why wasn't he in the World Cup team? What was management thinking?

Recollect the players wearing black armbands at the 2017 World League semi-final game against Pakistan to honour Indian soldiers who had died in Kashmir. This sort of political statement gave false comfort because it shielded players from stronger contests. Would the players have made a similar statement against the Great Britain team for the depredations of British colonial rule? The era of blaming Europeans for stealing Indian hockey by introducing artificial surfaces was long over. So, why not attack a soft target? Only, the World Cup was different.

Uncharacteristically, coach Harendra Singh blamed the umpires for India's World Cup defeat to the Netherlands. He might have drawn from the example of Virat Kohli, who once said it is no good blaming the pitch, or conditions one cannot control; winning needs to be an obsession. In another unsavory episode, players received reprimands for entering unauthorised hospitality areas, prompting an exchange between Singh and the management (according to media reports).

The Hockey Pro League is another case in point. There is no credible explanation for India pulling out. Mihir Vasavda of the Indian Express calls it a blunder. True, because India does not have top-rung tournaments in 2019. What was the management thinking when it took the decision to withdraw?

After failing to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, Indian hockey is back to seeking solutions for tomorrow in the muddles of today (India has had 25 coaches in 25 years). The intent has been there, but not the solution. Cultural tenets have ensured that players, coaches and managers do not look within after unsuccessful outcomes, or persevere with team structure and coaching staff.

Outside observers express surprise at this. The Dutch coach of the Japanese team, Sigfried Aikman, had presciently told me in Bhubaneswar that, since supporting a team going through difficult times is less valued in Indian culture than handing out punishment, the home crowd would scrutinise the tiniest mistakes of the Indian team, thus increasing pressure. When we had met after India's semi-final loss to Pakistan after the 2014 Champions Trophy, Marijke Fleuren, president of the European Hockey Federation, had expressed bafflement at the negativity of the Indian media. One can understand, because India had actually improved over the previous Champions Trophy.

Consider the facts. India stood 6th in the World Cup (it had stood 9th, 10th, 11th, 8th and 9th in the previous 5 editions). This was its best finish since 1994. India fought equal contests against the Netherlands and Belgium. Statistically, it won more games and scored more goals than in the past decades. Yet, the media is full of stories about Hockey India's displeasure. Changing coaches and support staff will mean a new cycle begins in a period of uncertainty, when the FIH is using the Pro League to develop hockey as truly global. Will pursuing old approaches not cause new turmoil?

The players and team management need time to absorb the lessons of the World Cup and prepare for future battles. They deserve better. But culture militates against the hard grind of strategic planning. Ours is a culture where the easy reward is punishment at the slightest sign of things going wrong. We won't draw on the examples of more successful teams because we belong to a culture of insularity that obsesses with self- reliance. This informs every facet of Indian life- from economic planning to social experimentation. Hockey India, which has worked so hard to bring Indian hockey to a respectable level, could still make the painful choices that bolster Indian hockey. But this has to be part of a larger overhaul of sporting culture. Is the visionary Narinder Batra, who, as the president of the Indian Olympic Association, has the power to shape outcomes, listening?

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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 14:56:24 IST

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