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.