For the first time in a decade, there is optimism surrounding our national sport, sparked by the clinical demolition by the Indian hockey team of all who stood in its way at the recent Olympic qualifiers in Delhi. In an Olympic year – and a year in which Indian cricket has been able to muster little of the magic that it did in 2011 – the timing couldn’t be better for hockey’s resurrection. Indians are beginning to show signs of cricket fatigue, exhausted with that sport’s cultural pre-eminence. Also, the cricket team is likely to pass through a period of transition and rebuilding. Hockey is set to fill the void.
Hockey has history and legend on its side. India’s is still the most successful team in Olympic history, with eight gold medals in past editions. Creating a bit of a buzz around a possible resurgence of past glory is easy. True, talk of a medal-podium position might be premature; hockey’s top ranked-teams, including Australia, the Netherlands and England weren’t part of this latest event. But it’s not that far-fetched, either.
India, even before this triumphant return to the Olympics, was ranked 10th in the world rankings and was marked as a team on the rise. Also, when comparing the brand value potential of a team that is within striking distance of becoming world-beaters to that of our football team – which perennially languishes at the southern pole of the world rankings – the answer is somewhat preordained. Hockey scores on every count: unlike basketball or football, there is an indigenous tradition of superlative success; it is the national sport; and Indians have the ability to match the skill sets of their stiffest opposition. Also, it’s not a sport that is likely to explode in the US, Africa or even the powerhouses of Europe. It is more of a Commonwealth sport, similar in many ways to cricket.
Are sponsors responding? Well, hockey already has the support of Hero MotoCorp, one of the biggest sponsors of Indian sports, and Sahara, which recently renewed the Indian hockey team’s sponsorship in the wake of its dispute with the cricket establishment. The five-year renewal of the senior and junior teams by Sahara, for Rs 8.5 crore annually, is a big boost for a sport in the doldrums largely because of its failure to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The biggest challenge for the sport is its ongoing administrative tussle. Hockey has been mired in controversy – and dense legalese – because of a dispute between the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and Hockey India (HI). Now, however, with the sport’s apex international body – the International Hockey Federation (FIH) – taking an active interest, there is hope that this too will be resolved. One potential way to solve this may lie in the stratification under a unified body. IHF can be in charge of the recently launched professional hockey league, the World Series of Hockey (WSH), as well as other such sponsor-led and -organised domestic initiatives; the management of HI can continue to work directly with FIH, promote grass-roots development, organise global events, choose the team and select the coaches and personnel. Either way, renewed public focus is a blessing, since the warring factions will no longer be left to their own devices, and a compromise is likely to be forced on them.
Successful professional hockey leagues that capture public imagination will seamlessly blend with success at the international level. WSH, the Nimbus-led initiative, seems to have worked out a sensible formula for a professional league — starting with a proper draft system for player selection, in stark contrast to the somewhat beleaguered auction system employed by other Indian sports leagues. Leagues such as WSH will help popularise the sport — and, not incidentally, monetise and commercialise it.
Already, the demi-iconic image of Sandeep Singh pointing his index finger to the skies after each of his many goals has been endlessly reproduced and has taken on a cachet of its own. On Facebook and Twitter, some are impudently suggesting that the Indian cricket team’s miraculous performance against Sri Lanka in the tri-series on Tuesday was, in fact, inspired by the hockey teams’ success!
After all, Chak De! India is one of the cult sports films that every Indian can relate to. Everyone loves a winner, and if the Indian team wins the Olympic medal, a legend will be rekindled, and a dynasty born. The road to redemption, indeed.
The author is a sports attorney at J Sagar Associates.
These views are personal