When two hockey legends, Ashok Kumar and Charles Cornelius, complained recently that the game needs to be revived in Bengal, they were not far from the truth.

Once known as the training ground for the national sport, Bengal used to be the hub of pristine hockey with all most all the Indian greats having showcased their talent here. Such was the popularity of the game in Bengal that the all-India Beighton Cup, now the oldest tournament in the world, was keenly watched by National selectors before finalising the team.

The Bengal Hockey Association (BHA) League was highly sought after by most top players in the country because of its competitive nature on-field and the generosity of clubs off it.

The involvement of the three leading clubs of Kolkata – East Bengal. Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan – along with some of the leading office teams, ensured the growth and popularity of the sport. When Ashok Kumar said that his three-year stint with Mohun Bagan helped him prepare for international assignments, he was underlining how tough the league was.

Bengal has produced such greats as Leslie Claudius, Jashwant Rajput, Keshav Dutt, the late Joginder Singh, Gurbux Singh, Vaes Paes, and Bir Bahadur Chhetri to name a few.

India’s decline began with the introduction of artificial turf where the fitter and faster Europeans began to overshadow the Asians. As the hegemony of India and Pakistan began to wane, the popularity of the sport suffered a massive hit. Spectators preferred to stay away as cricket, following the World Cup triumph in 1983, began to capture public imagination.

As cricket grew in leaps and bounds thanks to effective marketing, mandarins at the helm of Indian hockey failed to see the shift in interest and consequently proper remedial measures were not taken.

Despite Bengal hockey, whose affairs are run by Olympian Gurbux Singh, the game failed to rise above mediocrity. So many factors contributed to the game’s decline in Bengal with the State even failing to produce high calibre players to contribute to national pool.

The BHA’s efforts to have an astro-turf of its own along with a stadium has come a cropper so far. Despite the State Government and the BHA signing a memorandum of understanding January 1, 2010 that helped the latter get possession of four and a half acres of land inside Salt Lake Stadium, no construction work could commence owing to encroachment.

With little support forthcoming from the Government in helping clear the plot, the BHA’s latest initiative too is set to fail.

Bengal hockey and those who run the game in the State should act quickly and decisively to revamp the setup and give new meaning to the process that will help regain the glorious past.

sabanayakan.s@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on November 18, 2012)
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