Open Goal, Closed Mind

The IHF has to come to terms with the fact that this is the television age, which needs and loves its stars. Victories in sports produce instant stars, and the IHF has to learn to handle them. Stars alone bring everything else that matters in competitive sport: spectators, viewers, endorsements and money.

The future of Indian hockey hinges on the ability to do one thing the IHF hates the most, promote the stars. Because only the stars will bring spectators, eyeballs and cash, which then translates into more astro-turfs, better facilities and, most of all, more young talent, which the national game needs so badly.

hat is so peculiar with Indian hockey is its inability to handle success. Just last week the national team returned from Kuala Lumpur with what should rank among its three biggest championship wins in more than a quarter century. And what we saw, instead of happiness and celebrations at the airport, was an ugly spat between the players and the coach, followed by the usual insinuations that somehow the media was behind it all.

It was easy for my friend K. P. S. Gill to blame us in the media, to also call us scoundrels while, very diplomatically, making an exception for us editors as good men. Gill can get away with a lot. His foes fear him, his friends are hopelessly forgiving, as he is with them. But now that his team is doing so much better, Gill has to figure out how to deal with his players when they are winning, attracting acclaim, sponsorships, money, in short, stardom.

Hockey players as stars

It was different in the past when hockey players were faceless people, nondescript sub-inspectors and head constables, or minor employees of the Railways, Indian Airlines or other public sector undertakings.

In the past only Dhanraj Pillai had the individual star quality to defy the faceless, nameless loser stereotype of the Indian hockey player. Now Gagan Ajeet, Dileep and Ignace Tirkey, Deepak Thakur, Prabhjyot Singh, goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan have all become nationally known names. Give them another victory or two, and they will become real stars with nakhras and more. Jugraj Singhís accident is a national calamity and television cameras are lining up at his hospital wards in Ludhiana as well as New Delhi.

Sponsors are discovering a new set of stars to hang their products on to, besides the film and cricket stars who have become so unaffordably expensive of late. Reporters are reaching out to out-of-sight, out-of-mind villages in tribal Orissa to bring you stories on where the now famed Tirkeys learnt the tricks of their trade, equipped with only crude, bent sticks plucked from trees, and rewarded for their early successes with nothing more than a dressed chicken.

So, should the hockey establishment be celebrating or mourning?

Gill takes over the IHF

The truth is, when Gill took over the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), the game was a complete mess. India was struggling to qualify for almost all major international tournaments. No new talent was surfacing, the federation was bankrupt and even in Asia, South Korea was emerging as the dominant power.

This also coincided with the rise of cricket as a mass television sport, much the way football is elsewhere in the world. All sponsorships and money were moving into cricket. Hockey, commercially, was left with what it was getting on the field of international competition: the wooden spoon.

If much of that has changed now it has largely to do with Gillís energy, determination and "we shall overcome" spirit. He has given heart to the players and the coaches, brought some money into the establishment and, generally, given his team the belief that they could take on the world.

The job is not done yet, but India has now qualified for the next World Cup, is back in the Champions Trophy circuit, has a better than even record against Pakistan in the past 12 months and is seen as a threat even by Holland and Australia. The national team has a rich sponsor, its players are being offered personal contracts, and school-children would now stop a Dhanraj Pillai on the street for autographs.

Then what explains the ugly fracas at the airport between the coach and the players over an issue as minor as who gets to speak to the press? For a returning Indian hockey team, it is rare enough to see the press land up so enthusiastically to greet it. Usually, our hockey teams depart and arrive in silence and anonymity, if not ignominy. This was a moment to cherish, but was allowed to degenerate into a public embarrassment.

The reason obviously was the old establishmentís inability to come to terms with the fact that this is the television age, which needs and loves its stars. Also, that victory in sports produces stars and any establishment then has to learn to handle them because they alone bring everything else that matters in competitive sport: spectators, viewers, endorsements and money.

Sports stars as peons and servants

With the exception of cricket, and to some extent tennis, Indian sports authorities have always had a low threshold of patience with stars. From athletics to boxing to wrestling to hockey, our officialdom has encouraged the feet-touching culture where the player is treated no better than a peon or, if he is successful, a court entertainer.

One image that will forever remain etched in my mind is that of the Indian heavy-weight boxer, who had just knocked out his Pakistani rival in the final to win the gold medal, being literally pushed by the coach and the officials to touch Rajeev Gandhiís feet in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi. That is the way most sport has been managed in India.

Can you imagine Tendulkar being asked to touch any politicianís feet after winning a man of the match award? And if he won the World Cup or something, any politician would be vying to shake his hand, to invite him home to show off to his grandchildren.

It is exactly the opposite in all other games, including hockey. Many years ago, Indian athletics produced a sprinter with star quality: Bangalore's Ashvini Nachappa who brought to our track a rare combination of talent, glamour, articulation and spunk. She even beat P.T. Usha once, ran for India at the highest level, looked stunning in figure-hugging fluorescent track gear. We in the media were quick to hail her as our answer to Flo Jo.

Unlike the usual, silently suffering Indian athlete who, if at all, spoke only a few words in his or her native tongue, Ashvini could look you in the eye and when she did so, you listened. She also knew that the media mattered. At the Beijing Asiad, she started her morning training at the press hotel, giving so many of us in the Indian media contingent a start and you havenít ever seen a bunch of usually hard-drinking, lazy hacks more eager at an early morning jog.

Ashvini could also bait the officialdom. "If Suresh Kalmadi can tell the distance between two hurdles, I will stop running," she once said and it was a matter of time before the empire struck back.

Indian hockey has many more illustrious examples of its own. Itís done nothing worthwhile for any of its own legends, from Dhyan Chand to Babu to Surjeet Singh, Ganesh, Govinda and so on. Now, through sheer performance, Pillai, Prabhjyot, Gagan Ajeet, the two Tirkeys and the rest are promising to change all that.

Gill has brought Indian hockey out of a hole. But its future would hinge on his ability to do one thing our officials hate the most, promote the stars. Because stars will bring spectators, eyeballs and cash, which will then translate into more astroturfs, better facilities and, most of all, more young talent, which the national game needs so badly.

Article courtesy Indian Express, October 4, 2003