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Lost ground, forgotten heroes

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on August 14, 2014 Published on May 23, 2014

Stuff of legend: Indian captain Ajitpal Singh holds aloft the 1975 hockey World Cup after defeating Pakistan in the finals. Photo: The Hindu Archive   -  THE HINDU

World-beating line-up Indian players Ajitpal Singh, Aslam Sher Khan and Ashok Kumar hug Harcharan Singh (hidden) after he scored the lone goal against West Germany in the Group B match of the third hockey World Cup at Kuala Lumpur in 1975. Photo: The Hindu Archives   -  THE HINDU

Vijay Lokapally

Hockey was at its peak in the ’70s... A look back at the glory days, and why things went wrong

Delhi’s National Stadium was the hub for hockey players, both budding and established. The cricket field was a mass of youngsters. So was the hockey turf. It was a constant tussle — a turf war — between cricket and hockey. And the latter usually won as the astro turf inside and the grass surface outside witnessed unstinted activity all year round.

Punjab was then the nursery of Indian hockey, and Sansarpur its factory, producing national and international stars year after year. Over time, the game has become dormant, and talent has dried up in what was once a hockey-prosperous State. So much so that it has impacted the game as a whole. Hockey has lost out to better-administered disciplines like tennis, cricket, badminton and golf as also to other sports that hog airtime across channels. Today, hockey jostles with international cricket, IPL, EPL and other football leagues from around the world, F1 racing, NBA and tennis.

The Hero Hockey India League is a step in the right direction but the sport needs to raise its own profile and, more importantly, that of its stars. It can achieve that only with more TV support. Stories like that of Yuvraj Walmiki, the striker who emerged from the slums of Mumbai, must be told in graphic ways on television and other visual media for the game to reach out to the masses and for the team’s victories to be beamed live for hockey to regain its lost ground.

Playing hockey today is so much tougher than it was in the ’50s and ’60s when it was bigger than cricket. I remember players being mobbed at the National Stadium. In later years, Shivaji Stadium emerged as the hockey theatre in the Capital. It was fun in winter, watching hockey in the heart of the city, with a packed house cheering its heroes.

Hockey players did not command the fee that cricketers and tennis stars did. But they shared the same space among sports lovers. “It was a great feeling when people walked up to take our autographs. Hockey was very popular. It was second to none in terms of fan following,” reminisces Ashok Kumar, the player who scored India’s winning goal in the final of the 1975 World Cup.

The sheer number of tournaments that marked the annual hockey calendar spoke for the game’s administration. When domestic cricket was played with free entry for the spectators, one had to buy tickets to watch hockey matches all over the country. “The fan frenzy had to be seen to be believed. Faithful hockey lovers would throng the venues. To procure a season ticket was the best way to follow the game. I have seen ‘sold out’ boards at the Shivaji Stadium,” recalls veteran commentator Anupam Ghulati.

India’s 1983 Cricket World Cup win triggers national celebration every four years. Each member of that team is a household name. Sadly, few would remember the hockey legends who won the World Cup in 1975. “It is understandable if the general public does not recognise us and our achievements. But you feel sad when the hockey fraternity has to be reminded of the 1975 feat,” says Ashok Diwan, who kept goal in the pulsating semi-final against Malaysia and the final against Pakistan.

The nation celebrated the 1975 triumph. There were awards galore for the team. “It was a fantastic experience to be recognised in public,” said Ajitpal Singh at a recent function to felicitate the heroes of that team. He was allotted a petrol pump in south Delhi, which he promptly named Centre Half, the position that he played at.

A year before the World Cup, a series of seven matches were held in India between an all-star Asian XI and an Indian selection. Overflowing stands greeted the hockey stalwarts at all venues. And what a line up it was — Ashok Kumar, Ajitpal Singh, Surjit Singh playing in the same side as Islahuddin Siddique, Samiullah Khan, Akhtar Rasool, Munawwar-uz-Zaman, Manzoor ul Haq and Salim Sherwani, a galaxy of champions from Pakistan.

Hockey was at its peak in the ’70s. The Pakistani players would visit India for an annual hockey series. Some of them remember the games at the Cooperage in Bombay, the stay at the Ambassador and felicitations by movie stars like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Pran… There were no commercial gains for the players but they thrived on the affection and respect that came from their fans drawn from all sections of the society.

Finding a job was the motivation for hockey players, accepting offers in the class III and IV categories, joining as jawans and constables, serving the game with uncompromising loyalty. The financial returns for them were meagre but feats on the field rich. And yet, says the sporting great, Mohammad Shahid, “No regrets for playing hockey.”

Let me leave you with a sobering thought. Back in 1998, India regained the Asian Games hockey gold after 32 years. Barring the gold in the 1980 Olympic Games, which was a watered-down competition, the Asian Games victory was India’s finest moment on astro-turf — played out on colour TV. And yet, when the team returned home, there was no ticker-tape parade or even muted celebrations. Instead, six players and the coach, MK Kaushik, were sacked by self-seeking officials. The message to parents who would have considered sending their sons to hockey clubs and academies was clear: there are no rewards for doing well; there is no stardom at the end of the rainbow.

( Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports, The Hindu)

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Published on May 23, 2014
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