Weekend musings — the inevitable Hockey debacle

Did anyone watch the India-Canada hockey match telecast yesterday evening from the Olympics at Rio? This was supposed to be a walkover game that would have secured India the 3rd spot in the group after Germany and Netherlands. Predictably, we botched it. We couldn’t even overcome a lowly Canada. What chances of our doing better against a more efficient Belgium next? Those who witnessed the game against Germany — the best showing yet by a talent-challenged Indian team, followed a day later by the match with the Dutch, must have noticed the nerviness of our players in the last quarter and the feeling of inevitability, especially with Germans swarming to attack in the dying moments of the game, that the Indians on the field would falter, and lose. It has been downhill thereafter. Now our team can be expected to let the Belgians run all over them, and then Australia. Given the certainty of loss, the question is defeat by how many goals?

The trouble is India’s performance on the hockey field is a near analog of the Indian government’s confused conduct of the country’s strategic foreign and military policy fields. We don’t seem to know what the game is about, do not prepare well, and show no will to fight and, as surely as night follows day, end up with egg on our face. In fact, the Australian coach of the Indian hockey team at the last (London) Olympic Games, Michael Nobbs summed it up beautifully: “The players need to to make a decision whether they are satisfied just to be in the Olympics…or, are they willing to be tough and make the commitment for the nation’s cause.” The Indian hockey players, four years later, as in the past, seem to believe that merely qualifying for the Olympics is enough, not winning any medals.

This may be pertinent but I used Nobbs’ bemused statement post-London Games to say [in ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, p. 525]: “New Delhi seems so thrilled with just being acknowledged as a country with some standing, so overwhelmed with inclusion in exclusive conclaves (G-3, G-8, G-20, etc.), and so satisfied with itself and the way things have gone so far in the new millennium, it doesn’t see the need to raise its sights, put in the effort, and do the things that will in fact make India a genuine great power. Then again it may be a cultural trait.” And, of course, whether in a national security crisis or on the sporting field, Indians can’t hold their nerve, becoming nervous wrecks ere the crisis peaks.

I schooled at the King George’s Military School, Belgaum (since then renamed the Belgaum Military School), previously known as the King George’s Royal Indian Military College — one of the five such institutions post-1947 (besides Belgaum, at Ajmere, Bangalore, Nowgong, and Chail), the forerunner of the numerous Sainik Schools run by MOD to provide the feedstock for the National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla. [Was put in this school by my father who considered me a brat in need of discipline and also because my hometown, Dharwar, was just 48 miles away, in case the cry-baby ever wanted to run home! Graduated from KGSB aeons ago, in December 1963, in fact.]

Curiously what fills me with nostalgia about school days is not anything else but the wonderful hockey we, school boys, saw played on our hockey field. Belgaum hosts the centre of one of the great regiments of the Indian Army — the Maratha Light Infantry. At the time, MLI all by itself constituted the bulk force in Indian hockey — Shankar Laxman in goal, Right Back ML Jadhav, Bandu Patil Inside Right, and featured the fastest winger in the country (and the world?) never to don India colours (because while he outran any ball, he couldn’t adequately control it!), Outside Right Subedar Akalkot. The 1960 Rome-bound Olympics team, led by Leslie Claudius, played practice games against MLI on our field. And at least in two games that I vaguely remember, the MLI team, with its champion players in the team facing it, gave Claudius and his men fright. India won the Silver; Pakistan beating us for the first time for the Gold. The star turn was always Sub Major Bandu Patil, a wizard with the stick, so deft and quick silver, it was dazzling and exciting to watch. The usual melee in the middle out of which would routinely emerge Patil with the ball, speeding towards the adversary’s goal post while the opposing team members were still collecting their wits, running around trying to find the ball!

Now, and this is the point to make about not keeping up with the changing game — India kept emphasizing the dribbling skills of individual players even as by the 1970s the game was transitioning into a game of fast man-to-man lateral and deep passes, and striking the ball goalwards — first time, every time — when in the D, rather than dribbling ourselves into oblivion as Indian hockey stars still seem to want to do. Dhyan Chand was the genuine article, but not everybody can be one. But to this day, there’s no want of trying by every aspiring Indian hockey player to be Dhyan Chand, except such individual magic has long ago been superceded by the long pass-hard strike game stressing teamwork. The Indian hockey team members, despite their Dutch coach Oltmans’ no doubt fervent pleadings for change in attitude, seem not even to be aware that the way they play is obsolete!

Re: teamwork and stamina. Dribbling is anathema to teamwork. Players hogging the ball, showing off their ball-hawking competence usually lose the ball to hard-running opponents. Stamina is something Indian players seem invariably to be out of by the time the game clock shows 10 minutes to end-time. Indeed, one can see the energy levels exhausted by the third quarter. Stamina can ultimately be reduced to a matter of diet and physiology. Eating dal-bhaat is fine, but it does not provide the protein for the muscle mass that beef and red meat eating bigger, taller, heftier Europeans (and even Pakistanis, whose affliction is the same — in a word, the penchant to dribble, not to hit!) muster. In hard-dashing sports, at-most chicken (white meat)-eating Indians simply run out of gas, something one can palpably feel when watching the strained faces of Indian players in televised hockey games summoning the last ounce of energy to just stay upright at the final hooter.

Ultimately, the issue is to understand what the game is about now. The second order worry is the complacency that sets in with just the first glimmer of slight success (thus, after a hard-won victory in the first game at Rio over Ireland — IRELAND, for God’s sake), there were commentaries about how India was ready to take to the podium (!!!) and, finally, the express inability to prime oneself up for the job at hand. Whatever it is.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Culture, Europe, Indian Army, Pakistan, society, South Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Weekend musings — the inevitable Hockey debacle

  1. raja says:

    as usual excellent.

  2. Not to spoil your excellent take on hockey. It just reminds me on how not being in rule making body of the game had cost us dearly. There have been so many rule changes in the game. Introduction of astroturf was the biggest change that killed Indian hockey. Our players in their formative years play on grass and clay fields. Synthetic turf is completely different and unaffordable in a grand scale that India needs. Leaving aside medals. A game which inspired previous generations is all but dead.More was at stake than just medals.

    Compare that with tennis and cricket. Why are these games still played on natural surface(mostly)?

    When your interest is at stake you better be in the rule making especially when your are that champs…

    • prime argument@ — No argument on the main point! On the other aspect: Now that we are stuck playing the European brand of hockey — however that came about and there’s lot to bemeoan here, do we continue playing as one would on grass, or do we pick ourselves up and learn to play and excel on astroturf? That’s the question.

    • You also mentioned on veggie diet. I eat meat but some facts. Indian rural wrestlers are vegetarian including world champ Susheel Kumar. Diet is a khurak of Chickpeas, Badam, Ghee and Makkhan.

      Most protein supplements in market are vegetarian.

      You also mentioned beef. No no no ots been linked with cancer and is bad for environment. Even Usain Bolt does not have beef in diet plan.

      I suppose ancient Indian wisdom is mostly right in these matters.


      • Not to get into the nutrition aspects where you may well be right, but our Vedic forebears were essentially nomadic herdsmen and hearty beef eaters, sacrificing prize cattle on feast days and festivals. (Read the Rg Veda.) How did such a race, I wondered, in the first chapter of my my tome ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’ turn into a supine race indulging in what I called “bovine pacifism”? It is a question that continues to rankle me.

      • Tama Shah says:

        No, we were never hearty beef eaters. This is one of the most insidious (and successful) attempts made by ‘our eminent historians’ to turn Hinduism inside out. It has been successful because we trust works that are translations of translations of translations, or interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. Nobody, absolutely nobody, bothers to check the original sources. A comment is not enough space to put forth this argument, so here’s a link to an article I wrote on this a few years ago:

        It’s a bit heavy on Sanskrit. As a result, writing the article ended up being a mostly futile exercise, because the readers end up arguing based on faith, not reason/verification.

      • Tama@ — on beef eating, Swami Vivekanada presumably did (read the Vedas in the original, I mean). See correspondence on this post.

  3. Venkat says:

    Teamwork : this sums our biggest weakness

  4. shalesh jain says:

    Sir, a very fine analysis of Indian Hockey and btw, India faces Belgium on Saturday, not Australia in quarter final.

  5. Shalesh@ — Belgium– small mercies! Thanks, correcting the text.

  6. Sir, had we won against Germany then India may have had to face Australians in the quarterfinals.Belgium is something we may still be able to beat!!!

    I have a gut feeling that India may win gold in Hockey just like Portugal won Euro Cup in football

  7. Sir, I think Vedic Hindus stopped eating meat because of competition with Budhism and Jainism.

    Why pacifist religions like Jainism and Budhism were born in India only ?

    • That’s the thesis I put forward in my book ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’. But my reasons were that India was so rife with unending strife between small and big kingdoms across the length and breadth of the land, each sovereign trying his damndest using every ruse and resource at his command to make himself the chakravrtin (king of kings) — as the Rg Veda advised. The people meanwhile were fatigued by the demands of warring states over a millenium of fighting and constant conflict, and pined for religions like Buddhism and Jainism that preached nonviolence and moksha from the violent cycle of life. These new religions in the subcontinent began to attract a growingly large following until Adi Shankaracharya, the great Hindu revivalist, entering the scene in the 8th Century in essence adopted the nonviolence, accepting one’s fate, and similar precepts of Jainism and Buddhism that the people were drawn to into Hinduism — in effect redefining it. Unfortunately, it bred fatalism, an even worse malady, and vegetarianism, etc. This may have “saved” Hinduism. But the underside of this revivalist movement was that Buddhism was forced out of India — the greatest university and library of ancient times, to match that of Alexandria, in Nalanda, was burnt to the ground, and the Buddhist monks and teachers driven away, whence they crossed the Himalayas into Tibet and thence trudged eastwards to China, Southeast Asia, and the Far East, there to root their religion. Meanwhile, Hinduism lost its vigour, became enervated, and vulnerable to more energetic religions. In the same period that Shankaracharya entered the scene, Emperor Ashoka, decimated the entire population of Kalinga in one of the bloodiest holocausts in history, because its ruler showed the temerity to oppose him. Ashoka felt remorse and converted to Buddhism, but only after ensuring there was no challenger left — about the right time, I argued, for a country to turn temporarily nonviolent!

      • Sir, I beg to differ with you.I do not think that it was the constant warfare between small and big kingdoms in India which drove people towards Budhism and Jainism.Gautama Budha was born in 6th century BC.At that time Italy, Persia,Greece etc were also divided between small and big kingdoms who were always fighting among each other.Hinduism or Vedic religion is very much like Greek or Roman pagan religons.I mean other pagan religions and people were also equally warlike like vedic Hindus.

        DO YOU MEAN TO SAY THAT HINDUISM or people of India DURING 10-6th Century BC were far more warlike than other civilizations like Persia, Greece or Italy ?

        Now people in Central Asia and Mongolia have always been fighting between each other.Why was there no pacifist ideology born in Central Asia ?


        Sir, Budhism and Jainism are very much like Christianity.Budhism and Jainism are urban religions like Christianity.They were born and found a following atleast initially among city dewellers.

        Pagan religions like Vedic Hinduism were born among Rural or pastoral populations.They were far more close to nature than Budhism and Jainism.

        During 15-10th century BC India was basically a pastoral or rural society.India was not much advanced and people were basically farmers,cattle herders, nomads etc. There were no Cities or advanced civilization.

        From 10th century BC to 6th century India became more advanced.Cities began to appear and India was becoming a sophisticated society.By this time Caste system had already been founded in Rig Veda.Now the people who dominated the city’s intellectual life were Merchants, Traders and Priests.As you know Hinduism has 4 castes Warriors,Priest,trader and farmers. Baniyas, Brahmin and shudra were not supposed to be warlike and have aggressive instincts by the very law of Vedas.And besides these 4 castes there were dalits and adivasis.Now more than 80% people of India were supposed to be pacifists by the very law of Vedas.

        Budhism began Approx in 6th century BC.At that time Cities were reasonably advanced in India and India was undergoing a transformation from a pastoral society to a more advanced one. PACIFIST PEOPLE LIKE BANIYAS, BRAHMINS, DALITS etc were naturally attracted towards Budhism. They were the ones who dominated the City’s intellectual life.

  8. MS says:

    The analogy, sadly, is amply clear. Only not many are making the case in print, like you have done.

    After having seen so many matches in every sport lost because of losing the nerves, I feel it is not to blame the players but the supporting infrastructure. And when you go to the root cause, you see that the cause is the same underneath every injustice, every in-efficiency-“corruption”.

    Schools have become a profitable money making venture and lack the sporting opportunities that once existed. So, instead of becoming better they have become worse.

    Steeling the mind is very important in sports, and our athletes just do not have the support on this front. What am I talking! When they do not get enough good diet, how could do they dream of getting support on other fronts.

    Even when there is talent, we lose because we have not been taught how to stay focussed. Now, every Indian particularly the rich ones-by thoughts or by money or both, are feeling bad. I am looking for atleast one medal and searching the left over group of sports persons-who could get one. China is at second spot here too.

    Are we catching up with China or we lagging behind more and more? Please, no one tell me that India is beind china every where.

  9. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Vedic Hindus did not eat beef. That is just a myth.

    Also you don’t need this that or any other kind of meat to be a better sportsman. Most of the atheletes especially who have to do real hard physical trainings say cyclists hitting upto 7+hours of excruciating trainings tend to rely on milk protein concentrates of upto 90% protein content. Their intakes during trainings jump upto nearly 3/4 times that of the hardiest of Special Forces Operatives. Hockey is an easy sport.

    The main point, you make however is right – the loss is all because of the mind games. Most of our sports people are just as handicapped as the highest echelons in other walks of life. Probably it would be unfair to heap it all on Olympic qualifiers.

    But there is a problem with your argument that ‘dribblers’ mentality is causing this. Because even in individual sports we hardly make much difference while small nations like South Korea make their mark – Archery, Shooting, Chess, Boxing, Olympics martial arts disciplines, Wrestling. These do not require much team work but still our people lag badly in these. Not that I doubt the existence of clear preference for ‘dribbling’ mentality that both the Indian society as well as empowered individuals display.

    Here again you will notice that the ‘dribbling’ mentality is actually not a true individualist personality trait. People are just dabbling into things because that is the right jugaad response, considering the resource challenges. An Ajit Doval looks good only because the better option will come in the future. At one time even Nehru ji was a great option :). Some people still believe in the great contributions to India, made by the Britishers and Mughals etc.

    An individualist style has better be an extreme one – a sadhak/tapasvi. Because that is the only one that is going to be successful in any true sense. People just pretending to be dribblers are going to become roadkill because a better individual will always come up in that particular skill-set, simply because he is focused. Today our society is clearly cut off from the Sadhak/Tapasvi template, speaking in a cultural sense. Even though the people still feel the need for it (consider our religious circuit practices, housewife vrats etc.). Essentially its the menfolk in India, to blame for there low Tapasvi quotient. Foreigners have been able to convince our menfolk, who happen to be very updated on ‘information’ that all that was nonsense and a Beer at the end of day is the most updated lifestyle choice.

    One very important topic dealt with often in the hindu mythology is that the Gods give equal opportunity to both Devas and Rakshashas – equal boons for equal tapas. Only thing denied was Amaratva. After that its upto individual choices.

    • Vedic Hindus did eat beef and sacrificed bulls, etc to honour a guest, at festivals, and so on — this is clearly and repeatedly stated in the Rg Veda (which I researched via English language commentaries and translations, not in the original Sanskrit which, regretfully, I do not know). If you have a copy of my book, you’ll find the references. This Hinduism may be seen in the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, where cattle are sacrificed and their meat distributed as prasad. The extension of this ritual may be found in the ceremonial beheading of bulls and, now increasingly, buffaloes with the khukri, a revered rite of Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army during Dussehra.

      Indeed, it is the Shankaracharya reformation that also ended, as I have said, beef eating at least for the higher caste Hindus. This last has since proved to be a neat culinary line separating the lower castes from the upper castes and reinforced the traditional “division of labour” that Mahatma Gandhi unfortunately extolled and Babasaheb Ambedkar took umbrage at.

  10. andy says:

    “This you have always to remember that because a little social custom is going to be changed you are not going to lose your religion, not at all. Remember these customs have already been changed. There was a time in this very India when, without eating beef, no Brahmin could remain a Brahmin; you read in the Vedas how, when a Sannyasin, a king, or a great man came into a house, the best bullock was killed; how in time it was found that as we were an agricultural race, killing the best bulls meant annihilation of the race. Therefore the practice was stopped, and a voice was raised against the killing of cows. Sometimes we find existing then what we now consider the most horrible customs. In course of time other laws had to be made. These in turn will have to go, and other Smritis will come.”

    This is a quote from the complete works of Swami Vivekananda where he affirms that Brahmins ate beef in the past and sacrificing cattle was the choisest welcome for honoured guests.

  11. andy says:

    As usual a great piece of work with the Indian hockey teams performance in Rio interwoven with your own childhood memories of Army school Belgaum, made me take a ride down memory lane to Khadakvasla which was a favorite weekend get away for Engineering students in Pune apart from Sinhagad fort.Great work!!

  12. Maximus says:

    An Israeli once said, that for every other nation sports is a game, but for Germans it is war. While the Indian hockey team played better, the Germans scored 4sec before the end.The Indians were mentally already in the cabin, when the German side scored (with luck).In this case you can eat beef, chicken, pork or reproductive parts of tiger, nothing will help, if you are mentally not prepared.Mens Sana in corpore sano. By the way, participants in Ironman are mostly vegetarians, or if you want a comparison from fauna, elephant, horse or gorilla (vegies) have much more power and stamina than carnivores.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.