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Cracks in Indian hockey’s upswing

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-07-2017 Jaspreet Sahni

In June 2016, the Indian men’s hockey team won its maiden Champions Trophy silver medal. The feat propelled them to No. 5 in the International Hockey Federation (FIH) rankings—India’s best standing since 2004.

In November the same year, former Hockey India (HI) chief Narinder Batra was elected FIH president—a position he still holds. In December, India won the men’s junior World Cup.

Other than the subpar show at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics (India lost in the quarter-finals), 2016 was a landmark year for Indian hockey. But that upswing has gone through a turbulent phase in the first half of 2017, hurting the sport both on and off the field.

It’s astonishing how Indian hockey falls every time it appears to be getting back on its feet. After three average tours so far this year—failure to qualify for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup final in Malaysia, just one win in four matches at the Dusseldorf Invitational and a sixth-place finish at the Hockey World League (HWL) semi-finals in London—the report card is sorely missing As.

To make matters worse, the game’s caretakers at HI have overlooked the reasons for an average show and seem to be busy settling scores with Pakistan at the cost of cordial relations with the FIH.

The recent setbacks occurred at the HWL, where the team lost to lower-ranked Malaysia and Canada. In the middle of that tournament, former captain Sardar Singh received summons from Leeds police in England in connection with a complaint of sexual assault filed by his alleged ex-girlfriend, the British-Indian hockey player Ashpal Bhogal.

Batra suspected a conspiracy by politicians of Pakistani origin in the new English government. “The country which is a safe haven for criminals who have fled from India needs to be told in clear words by government of India to leave Indian athletes alone and not work under pressure of 16 Pakistan-origin members of Parliament who got elected in recent elections in England,” Batra wrote in a Facebook post on 19 June.

After an uproar, the FIH distanced itself from the president’s comments and forced him to take down the post.

“FIH president Dr Narinder Dhruv Batra has issued personal apologies via formal letters and follow-up phone calls to several nations and the FIH executive board in relation to posting inappropriate comments on his personal Facebook page,” the FIH said in its statement.

India then accused Pakistan of indirectly “fixing” a pool game in London, which India won 7-1. The Indian federation felt that the police complaint against Sardar Singh was a plot to destabilize the team, given that Sardar would have to travel for questioning on the day of the match, leaving India without their chief playmaker.

“There is enough circumstantial evidence, the complaint was filed only one day before the India-Pakistan match,” HI president Mariamma Koshy wrote in her letter to the FIH.

Enclosed with Koshy’s complaint was a letter by Indian team manager Jugraj Singh to HI. “Further from the hush hush sources, i.e., our friends of Indian and Pakistan origin staying in England/GB, it was also made known to us that the complainant (Bhogal) took £5,000 (around Rs4.2 lakh) for filing the alleged complaint,” Jugraj wrote in his letter.

If that was not enough, the next day India decided to pull out of the Hockey Pro League, having backed it with much gusto in the days preceding its official announcement. The Pro League is FIH’s new tournament, which will begin in January 2019 with nine women’s and men’s international teams each playing on a home and away basis.

The off-field events—the complaint against Sardar and the subsequent allegations by India—seem to indicate an attempt to hit back at Pakistan and the FIH for what happened in London. In the midst of all this, the embarrassing defeats to Canada and Malaysia have escaped the much needed scrutiny.

Finding excuses?

In his letter, Jugraj, the former India drag-flick expert, said the police complaint affected the other 17 members of the team so much that they couldn’t win the quarter-final against Malaysia and the fifth-sixth place play-off game against Canada.

“This incident affected the morale of the Indian team, and the team lost focus and purpose. The performance of the team can be seen in the matches that happened after this incident of Sardar Singh…. Before this incident, India had won all three pool matches,” Jugraj wrote.

It’s a team game, but an individual’s troubles have been strangely used to explain the inefficiency of the team as a whole. In fact, after the defeat against Holland, India captain Manpreet Singh said: “I don’t think yesterday’s events (police questioning) had an effect on Sardar. For me, he played a good game and was pretty calm.”

India finished sixth in the tournament. Had India not been hosts for the HWL finals later this year and the 2018 World Cup, the team would have had to struggle to qualify for both.

Pro league connection

India’s withdrawal from the Hockey Pro League came after Batra apologized to FIH. The FIH confirmed India’s exit in a media release, but may now have to pull out all stops to keep the league afloat as a commercially viable product.

India’s sudden pullout may put the financial burden on FIH to conduct the Pro League. India is the largest money-spinner for field hockey; the Hero Group is the title sponsor for FIH events. If India aren’t in the tournament, sponsors may think twice before putting their money into it.

But it may hurt India too if the FIH decides to strip the country as hosts of the HWL finals and the World Cup.

Not playing the Pro League, which will run from January-June every year, will, moreover, cost Indian players international exposure for half the year.

Business woes hurting future

The franchise-based Hockey India League (HIL) is already in troubled waters, with most of the companies associated with it struggling to show profits.

An important meeting between HI and the franchises is scheduled for 24 July. “I can’t make any comment on our position until the meeting takes place,” says Inderjit Vinayak, who was overseeing the Jaypee Punjab Warriors during the 2017 season.

The Hero Group did not renew its three-year contract as HIL title sponsor after 2015. However, state-owned Coal India Ltd (CIL) came to the league’s rescue, signing a three-year contract subject to review every year. This contract, worth Rs14.73 crore, runs until the 2018 edition.

Shelving HIL will also hit the financial stability the league has provided for players since its inception in 2013.

Delhi Waveriders and Jaypee Punjab Warriors are mulling exits from HIL on financial grounds. “It’s not official yet but the league’s future is in doubt,” said an official from Punjab Warriors, on condition of anonymity.

Additionally, the Hockey Pro League will run during the same period as HIL. That will mean big international players will not be available for the league, for they will be on national duty.

The combined effect of all this will mean a loss of prominence for HIL, which doesn’t augur well for its longevity.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

Amid all this, none of the sport’s stakeholders are talking about measures to ensure hockey doesn’t lose ground.

For starters, HIL must be salvaged in the interest of budding players. It not only provides them an international stage, it also helps them run their homes.

Second, HI needs to focus on the game rather than fighting personal battles off it. Opting out of a qualifying tournament for the Olympics (Pro League) is not the way forward for Indian players who need more quality match time to bridge the gap with top nations.

Third, blaming poor performance on an off-field event sends out the wrong message, especially when you lose to mediocre oppositions in a team game.

Jaspreet Sahni is a freelance writer with a decade’s experience in digital and print media.

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