Indian Men's Hockey Rediscovers Its Blossom
There are many who contributed to building this Indian men's hockey team that's won an Olympic bronze.
The Kurinji is a resident of the Western Ghats, a shrub that sits quietly decorating the eroded edges of the Deccan Plateau. The shrubs bloom after laying quiet for a dozen years, flooding the hills in a sea of purple. It is a sight to behold, and a source of immeasurable joy.
Indian hockey has been in a slumber that has lasted way longer than a dozen years. But when Manpreet Singh and his boys produced a thrilling 5-4 win over Germany to secure bronze, it ended a 41-year wait for Indian hockey to rediscover its magnetic petals of glory.
The sport may have gained ground gradually, but the bronze in Tokyo will afford it renewed vigour and charm. This momentous return to the podium could turn into a watershed moment for the sport in India. The degree of success that this team has achieved is a new experience to many generations of Indians, who haven’t seen the sport sit on a pedestal as high as the one it earned in this Olympics. The medal might be tinted bronze, but for a starving community of fans, this might be a shade that sparkles brighter than the many Gold medals on offer in Tokyo 2020.
The national sport may have not to found its brightest notes yet, but the rousing hymns of Manpreet’s team at the Oi Seaside Park have captured a billion hearts, whose dedication to the sport, has only been exceeded by the men on the pitch. They fought like warriors, often throwing their bodies on the line as they held their lines in the face of a rampant German team. The Indians came from behind twice, from 0-1 and 1-3 as they upended the four-time Olympic Champions with an emphatic effort in the second and third quarters of a memorable match.
Our hockey found its voice in the imaginative leadership of Manpreet Singh, the bold advances of Simranjeet Singh, the emphatic brilliance of Rupinder Pal Singh and the slick skills of Harmanpreet Singh. The magic of Hardik Singh will remain part of this lore that shall be recounted many times under a full bright moon in the coffee estates of Coorg, the winding mountains in the East and the lush green fields of Punjab. This is an Indian team that draws its inspiration and skills from many corners of an irrepressible peninsula.
The North Star of this team though is PR Sreejesh, whose towering presence on the goal line has been vital to the fortunes of this team. He elevated his craft with an eagle eye, a nimble body and a mind that marshalled our defences to a higher state of existence. Bold and brilliant.
The 1980 Gold in Moscow felt like a farewell gesture for a team that dominated world hockey for decades on end, mystifying observers with their fleet-footed mastery of this racy sport. But the emergence of the astro-turf turned the toolbox upside down as the sport found new wings. It flew far and wide. The game found its celebrated warriors across Europe, Australia and Latin America as pace and precision usurped the game from the artsy practitioners in India.
After remaining tourists to the Olympics for nearly three decades, Indian hockey plunged to its nadir when they failed to qualify for the Games in Beijing. Abhinav Bindra climbed the peak of excellence to alleviate some of the shock, but die-hard hockey fans were smarting at the continued dereliction of their beloved sport. They were keeping hockey alive in the country by breathing their love into it.
At times though, finding the bottom could turn into a cathartic experience. As it was for Indian hockey. The democratisation of concern for India’s national sport found a new echo in the corridors of power and the jarring noise resonated in the streets. Indian hockey found its first significant turn under Jose Brasa, as the forlorn team forged its will in the cauldron of failure. When the team reached the final of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, there was acknowledgment from several quarters of Indian hockey, including V Bhaskaran and Zafar Iqbal that Indian hockey may have turned an important corner.
The team would repeat the Silver four years later. But it was the Gold at the Asian Games that infused the belief and energy needed to revitalise the sport in India. Victory in Incheon was a reaffirmation that finally Indian hockey could aspire to a spot on the mountain and not just crane its neck looking up in pitiful agony.
It is not often that we experience the State playing a transformative role in sport, particularly in India. The administration of sport has been the stickiest of issues in Indian sport. In the case of hockey though, India found an unlikely saviour in the Government of Odisha. The state pledged 150cr when they signed a landmark agreement with Hockey India, enough for a new pair of wings and the solidity of a runway for its flight.
Just as significantly, the world class Kalinga Hockey Complex in Bhubaneswar which hosted the 2018 World Cup has turned into a glittering new cradle for Indian hockey. Odisha’s plans to lay a synthetic turf in every block of Sundargarh district, considered by many a rich nursery for hockey is also the kind of grassroots investment that is worth emulation. We can look ahead to the World Cup in 2023 for not just continued progress, but also another bounty of infrastructure in Rourkela, where a spanking new venue with a staggering 20,000 capacity is in development.
And let us not forget that Graham Reid and Sjoerd Marijne, too, have been equal heroes plotting the revival of Indian hockey into a realm of glory. The former Aussie and Dutch internationals have brought with them not just technical nous, but also the seeds of character that define champions. It is their ideas and energy that have brought a new blossom for Indian hockey.
The men can rest now and celebrate their valour. The women remain deep in preparation ahead of their bronze medal match against Great Britain. Marijne and Rani Rampal will hope that the ladies can respond to the energy flowing from the men’s team. The girls have already produced an epic effort to reach the semi-finals. One last thrust on Friday could afford them the honour of wearing Olympic jewels, for the rest of their celebrated lives, as well.
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