The current ugly imbroglio in hockey might seem to be about match fees, allowances—essentially money—but I think that is missing the wood for the trees. The bane of Indian hockey is not the empty coffers, but the absence of thought leadership in the sports establishment.
Great as the temptation is because this is a business paper, I’ll eschew any further management jargon. Instead, let’s try and understand hockey’s predicament by comparing it with cricket, which everybody is wont to do in any case. It’s a comparison that comes easily, I must admit, is odious, I must confess further, but not irrelevant if seen in a particular context.
India’s climb to cricketing superpower status—in the fiscal sense—is believed to have begun with the 1983 World Cup triumph. That win triggered mass hysteria which was seized upon by canny administrators such as Jagmohan Dalmiya to make this country the hub where spectatorship is concerned. With economic liberalization in 1991, cricket was ready to ride the crest and within a decade, India had become the El Dorado of the sport. The Indian Premier League (IPL), not yet three seasons old, is already rated as the sixth most valuable sports property in the world.
Hockey has slipped rapidly downhill despite India’s gold medal-winning effort in the Moscow Olympics in 1980. True, those Olympics were hit badly by boycotts and the victory achieved was pyrrhic, against less fancied teams. But that need not have prevented the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) from exploiting the opportunity that had come its way five long years after the World Cup win in 1975. Where cricket officials were quick, like wolfish investment bankers on Wall Street during boom time, hockey officials preferred to be Rip Van Winkles. By the time they woke, the world had changed.
Indeed, the failure to understand contemporary trends and seize opportunities has been the biggest problem in Indian hockey, and I can cite several examples of this. For instance, India was among the last countries to wake up to the astroturf revolution which was to define the modern game; or the changes in rules which were to tilt the game so heavily in favour of the Europeans. By the time IHF realized what had happened, it was too late to do anything except whinge.
Even when some trends were obvious—such as the economic upturn post-liberalization—the hockey establishment was tardy in its response, with no clear idea on how to innovate, market and monetize the sport. The sport has stagnated because of pettifogging and playing the blame game. Officials have been content to live off the glory of past Olympic champion teams, not work assiduously towards improving the infrastructure, the development at the grass-roots level, the support services, including coaching/fitness, et al, and creating an ecosystem which the corporate sector would find seductive to invest in.
Small indiscretions: Indian hockey players had gone on strike at a training camp in Pune, demanding their pending salaries.
It hardly need be said that such myopia was fraught with peril. When the bad times arrived, as was inevitable, they triggered massive insecurities among officials and players, soon leading to confrontations among them—leading to the fracas in which players struck work by refusing to train, with the World Cup only weeks away. Frankly, I don’t like the idea of the top players not representing the country in a World Cup. That would have made a mockery of the tournament as well as the host country, in this case India. But I am adamant that my sympathies lie with the players.
A remuneration of Rs25,000 for a tournament and only $20 (Rs900) daily allowance for wearing India colours is a rancid joke, not a fact of life in the second decade of the 21st century. It is almost as bad as the joke I encountered in the second-last decade of the previous century. In the late 1980s, Professional Management Group (PMG), the company founded by Sunil Gavaskar and Sumedh Shah (who has since retired), landed a Rs25 lakh sponsorship for Indian hockey. Everybody was delighted till they ran into cussed officials who insisted on getting their own blazers stitched before those of the players. “How can a sport thrive if that’s the way the officials behave?” opined a PMG executive who shall remain unnamed.
Sadly, not much has changed in the quarter century since. It can’t when the thought leadership is vacuous—or full of hot air.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters. This is the first of his fortnightly columns.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org