Hockey's lost ground

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 17, 2012 19:32 hrs

The first sight that greets you in Sansarpur is the hockey ground. And why not — after all, this small village a few kilometers from Jalandhar cantonment was at one time the hotbed of Indian hockey. The village of 6,000 has produced 14 Olympians, 19 internationals who played for India and over 150 players who played for various national-level teams over the years. That’s not all. From 1928 to 1980, the Indian hockey team won 11 Olympic medals and in all but four occasions, a lad from Sansarpur was in the team. But that was in the past.

On a mild February morning, the ground is deserted. The world may have moved to Astroturf, but the hardy men and boys of Sansarpur hone their skills on this ground. The goalposts are rickety. The net has gaping holes. Finally, at around 9.30 am, a young man in a track suit walks in. Satwinder Singh is the coach of the young kids who come and play here. The ground is being watered today, he says, so the children won’t be coming till evening. “I have been playing hockey for over 20 years and have played at the national level as well,” he says. Singh is aware of the burden of history that he and his ilk have carried over the last 30 years. “Hockey is in our blood but over the years it has been neglected severely out here,” he rues.

Sansarpur’s tryst with hockey began in the 1920s when the British set up the ground. In those days, children played with homemade hockey balls and sticks carved out of tree branches. Balbir Singh Kullar, a member of the teams which won gold in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and bronze in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, recalls that every child had only one dream: to become a hockey player. “We had so many role models and the only thing we knew was to play hockey.” He calls the passion for hockey a junoon or obsession.

Most residents of Sansarpur are Kullar Jat Sikhs. Balbir Singh Kullar says the inhabitants picked up hockey watching the British play. Their build was ideal for the game, he adds. Unlike their Mazhabi brethren, the Jats are short and stocky, which means they can move fast on the field and run for longer stretches. Balbir Singh, not more than five feet and seven inches, is stockily built. “Hockey is almost dead in this part of the world now,” he rues.

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As evening approaches, a group of 30 players congregates on the ground. Some of them walk in, while others come in bicycles or motorcycles. The children wear shirts and track pants, while others are kitted in shorts and T-shirts. Though it was watered in the morning, the ground is ready for a game by evening. Satwinder Singh divides them into groups of three and instructs them to play. “No fouls will be counted but don’t play an overtly physical game,” he yells before blowing the whistle. An elderly gent begins his evening walk on the ground, unmindful of the game. The youngsters make sure the ball doesn’t strike him. Some of the youngsters display a high degree of skill. It’s clear that hockey still runs in their genes.

Satwinder Singh may be disillusioned with the state of hockey in his village, but his skills with the stick are not unknown outside the village — he is off to Hong Kong for three months to play for a local club called Singh Sabha Hockey. “I hope I can extend my stay there as I can’t sustain a livelihood on hockey here,” he says. Singh blames the current plight of hockey on the lackadaisical attitude of former players and authorities. “They rarely come here and when they do it is only for an exhibition match,” he says. Without taking names, he says certain former players play dirty politics and don’t want Sansarpur to regain its lost glory. “I was rejected at one of the trials for the state team because I was from Sansarpur,” says Gurpreet Singh who has played at the state level. He has now applied for a coach’s job with the Sports Authority of India.

Gurpreet Singh takes me around Sansarpur on his bike and we stop in front of an unnamed street. This one street alone has churned out 11 Olympians, he tells me. The nameplates on the houses have prefixes like Arjuna awardee or Padmashri. An old man stops me from clicking pictures and says this is his treasure and he doesn’t want others to see it. When he walks away I ask Gurpreet Singh why clicking pictures isn’t allowed. “If they hadn’t seen such riches, they could live with being poor,” Singh replies, philosophically. “Some of them have died and their kids didn’t take up the sport, while some are hurt to see the decline of hockey and refuse to talk about it,” he elaborates.

A little later, another bunch of kids takes the ground, but they start playing football, not hockey. “Why will they play hockey when there is no support, no money and no recognition,” asks Gurpreet Singh. For 20 years, the villagers had been fighting to get an Astroturf fitted in the village but no one heard their plea. Last year, a pitch was finally installed but it wasn’t the full length one they had asked for. “Instead what we got was the six-a-side turf,” says Satwinder Singh.

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The Sansarpur Hockey Association’s office is in an old building with faded pictures of hockey players hanging on the walls. It is now headed by Colonel (retd) Balbir Singh Kullar who seems determined to restore the glory of Sansarpur. “The last 30 years have been disappointing but there’s no reason why we can’t promote hockey and reclaim our lost glory.” The decline in Sansarpur, he feels, reflects the decline in hockey nationwide. “Many young men of the Kullar community, who were the pride and joy of Sansarpur, have moved overseas to make money and no one can blame them,” he says, sitting in his ramshackle office. He is happy that at least 150 kids took part in the training camp in January. He is confident that the number of kids will treble over the summer.

A little distance away, Basti Nau in Jalandhar is the market for all sports goods but cricket equipment dominates most of the shops. Gulshan Singh of Gulshan Exports says that the demand for hockey sticks has declined rapidly over the years. “Earlier we used to sell around a stick a day but now it is hardly five or so in a month,” he says. That sums up the plight of Sansarpur. It could be a coincidence but the last time a player from Sansarpur made it to the Indian Olympics team was the last time India won an Olympics medal — 1980 in Moscow. Has anyone taken note of that?

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