Uttar Pradesh once gave legendary players to the game, but today it fails to match international standards
Traditional Indian hockey, played on natural grass, is passé. Perhaps, this development was missed by many as only a few could care giving the game a few moments of their attention. Synthetic surface called AstroTurf is the ‘in thing’ and hockey on natural grass is a matter of the past. The wizards of Indian hockey and their techniques have been long forgotten. Modern-day hockey is a game of sheer raw power and stamina but lacks the traditional artistic style.
Uttar Pradesh, home of traditional Indian hockey, gave the country a legendary player and an artist on the field – Dhyan Chand. Sometime later came KD Singh ‘Babu’. Such great players, playing barefoot on grass, shook the entire world with their classic dribbling skills and speed. But those days are gone.
India’s golden run in the Olympics started in 1928 at Amsterdam where the team won the gold medal, and repeated the feat in 1932 at Los Angeles, in 1936 at Berlin, in 1948 at London, in 1952 at Helsinki and in 1956 at Melbourne. The dream run ended in 1960 when India had to content with a silver medal in Rome Olympics. This was a period when Uttar Pradesh dominated Indian hockey and the majority of the squad of 16 players came from this state.
Another gold haul for India came in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Thereafter, the game saw a decline as the team managed to secure only bronze medals in Mexico City Olympics and Munich Olympics in 1968 and 1972 respectively.
But the real downfall started showing when India finished seventh in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Though, India won the gold again in 1980 Moscow Olympics, it was seen as a consolation prize as the event was boycotted by all major hockey playing nations.
Between 1928 to 1956, in these six consecutive gold winning times at the Olympics, India played 24 matches, won all of them, scored 178 goals at an average of 7.43 goals per match, and conceded just seven goals.
The first sporting achievement of independent India was when it clinched the gold medal in the 1948 Olympics, wherein the final was held between India and Britain in Wembley. India trounced Britain 4-0 and it was the first time that the Indian tricolour was hoisted and the national anthem was played at an Olympic venue.
Indian hockey, at many instances, witnessed high-scoring games. However, after a gap of 28 years India won by just one goal against Germany (1-0) in the finals of 1956 Melbourne Olympics, which came as a rude shock to Indian fans. It took more than 40 years for a country to score more than one goal against India – in 1968 Munich Olympics when India tasted defeat at the hands of New Zealand with the scoreboard displaying 2-1.
But once the downside started, it did not stop. From 1984 to 2004, India finished at fifth, seventh and eighth positions. The worst came in 2008 when India failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. In the last London Olympics, India finished at a poor 12th position.
AstroTurf entered the world of hockey in the 1970s, and it was introduced in the Olympics for the first time in 1976 during the Montreal Olympics. India was then unprepared, and still is when it comes to the number of AstroTurf grounds compared to other hockey playing nations.
Besides Dhyan Chand and KD Singh ‘Babu, many more players – Zafar Iqbal, Syed Ali and Mohd Shahid among others – were from UP, whose contribution towards the game is still remembered by hockey lovers.
But the condition of the game as well as the players in the state is simply pathetic. For a state with a population of over 200 million people where hockey has been popular since ages, UP has just eight grounds with AstroTurf, one each in Lucknow, Varanasi, Gazipur, Rae Bareli, Jhansi, Gorakhpur, Saifai and Etawah. Two more grounds in Lucknow, one laid by Sports Authority of India and one by the UP police, are redundant now.
The worst-case scenario is visible at the Dhyan Chand Stadium located at Sports College, Kursi Road, Lucknow. Here, the AstroTurf was installed in 2011 and is in shambles now. Experts say that the inferior quality of soft pad (the surface which holds the AstroTurf to the ground) that was purchased previously is the root cause of the damage. The exterior surface gets bloated and is in a bad shape. Incidentally, matches of the Indian Hockey League 2015 took place on the same turf. It is now in the process of being changed.
Laying an AstroTurf is not an expensive proposition. The cost of installing a world-class AstroTurf comes between Rs 4 crore and Rs 5 crore. But the state government does not seem to be much enthused about increasing the number of AstroTurfs for the promotion of the national game.
And the callous attitude towards the maintenance of the existing ones makes the situation even worse.
Western hockey majors like the Netherlands, Australia and Germany have hundreds of AstroTurf grounds. The players there get an exposure on such grounds since childhood and their game is thus based on raw power rather than technical skill. Emerging players of these countries get the feel of synthetic surface from day one. AstroTurf is a common feature of even small-time sports clubs of European countries. However, in India, lack of AstroTurfs leaves youngsters with no option but to play on natural grass. When at the age of 18 or 20 they shift to Astroturf, they find it difficult to adapt to the high-speed game. This explains why India has slipped out of the league of world’s top hockey-playing nations.
But Mohd Shahid, former Olympian and ace striker of the yesteryears, rather than blaming government apathy towards the sport, laments the lack of seriousness of the present breed of players. He says that it would be wrong to blame only lack of amenities. Shahid argues that facilities have somewhat improved from what he witnessed in his early days but now players lack the basic commitment and sincerity. The killer instinct and aim to make it to the Indian team is missing among players, he adds.
Former Indian hockey captain Zafar Iqbal says that there has been a general decline in popularity and interest towards the game. He says that there is no money involved in the game as compared to other sports like cricket and tennis. Iqbal is of the view that big names in the game of hockey, who dedicated their lives for it, could not manage to survive on hockey alone.
He says that the new generation has altogether drifted away from hockey. Some hostels in UP, where hockey was taught, are now closed and major tournaments of hockey which were a regular annual feature have also been scrapped. Iqbal adds that two cash-strapped bodies – Indian Hockey Federation and Hockey India – are battling it out for supremacy in a game which is in complete neglect.
Former Indian player Rajnish Mishra says that in the yesteryears, schools used to be early training grounds for grooming talent, but with the passage of time hockey grounds have disappeared from school campuses and so has the breed of young hockey players. Hockey culture is dying and the game is vanishinging from UP, he quips.
Alas, Uttar Pradesh is no longer the ‘factory’ which used to produce world-class hockey players for the country.