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A Hockey India League match between Punjab Warriors and Dabang Mumbai. Photo: Hindustan Times
A Hockey India League match between Punjab Warriors and Dabang Mumbai. Photo: Hindustan Times

Indian hockey: The curious case of the Bombay Gold Cup

When a hockey team from one domestic tournament sponsors a totally different domestic tournament

What’s good about watching sports from the stands is that there’s never a shortage of expert comments. At a Ranji Trophy cricket match two years ago, I was one of a hundred spectators who watched Mumbai lose at home to Maharashtra.

As the last rites played out, a young man yelled that two Maharashtra stars should immediately be drafted into the Mumbai Indian Premier League (IPL) team. With that one remark, he managed to capture the odd alignment of the domestic cricket scene in India.

Ranji teams are made up entirely of local cricketers; IPL teams are made up of cricketing mercenaries from around the globe, the cast changing from one season to the next; and even so, it’s IPL teams that command more fervent fan support than Ranji teams, by far.

Something of that sensibility came to mind as I watched the final of a hockey tournament this week. More on that in a bit.

It was the 50th edition of a famous annual city tournament, the Bombay Gold Cup. It usually attracts public sector teams from across the country: Air India, BSF, Central Railway, Bharat Petroleum, Punjab & Sind Bank and more, though in its second edition, in 1956, a team from Pakistan, Afghan Club, actually won the cup.

No doubt your keen arithmetic eye caught something there: 1956 was nearly 60 years ago. Why only the 50th edition, then? Lists of past winners, for example, here: http://www.mumbaihockey.org/bombay-gold-cup.html, or in the souvenir I picked up at the final, carry a line, saying, “1990 and 1991 not played."

The souvenir says that was because of the “installation of new astroturf" at the Mumbai Hockey Association stadium. But there’s no explanation for why the tournament was not contested between 1993 and 1999, nor in 2000, nor between 2009 and 2013. In any case, with all those years missed, 2015 did indeed mark the 50th time the tournament was held.

Last year’s champion, Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd (BPCL) reached the final. Facing off against them was a team representing the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). A fast train to Churchgate and some fast walking from Churchgate had me entering the stadium—past a waiting ambulance, gotta be prepared for anything—just as the match began.

As I climbed to a seat, there was a roar from the audience—clearly a shot on goal that CAG just missed, because the scoreboard didn’t move. And exactly as I sat down, some CAG manoeuvre near the BPCL goal brought this knowledgeable observation from a man nearby: “Ch***ya ka placing bekaar hai!"

I had no idea what prompted that. But as I got my bearings over the next few minutes, it became clear that this was going to be a one-sided match and that CAG, despite their early moves near the BPCL goal, was on the wrong side of it. Already, the action was largely in the CAG half, seeming hordes of swift yellow-clad BPCL players flat-footing the CAG men over and over again.

Almost inevitably, BPCL scored, a shot from the far left corner threading through a crowd of attackers and defenders to land almost deliberately on a BPCL player’s stick, then deflect into goal. 1-0, BPCL.

In the stands three rows in front, a band strikes up to mark the goal. Led by a trumpeter in a bright red tie and stylish glasses, their instruments dull from years of use (or disuse), about a dozen men in black suits start a spirited rendition of the old Konkani dulpod, Maka zai zai (I want, want/A small, small bride I want). But they get only a few bars into the song before they have to stop, play has resumed after the goal.

There’s hardly a let-up in the way the men in yellow swarm across the CAG half of the field. There are regular loud CAG yells—a little surprisingly, mostly in English—for someone, anyone, to stop them. Again and again, a BPCL man zips past us down the right sideline, deep into CAG territory, then passes the ball to the roiling mass on top of the goal, but almost invariably straight to a teammate in there. He gets tackled immediately, but more often than not, there’s at least a shot at the CAG goal before the dust settles and the action moves upfield again.

In contrast, CAG’s attacks on the BPCL goal are rare and peter out somewhere far to one side of the goal. The BPCL goalie’s contribution to the game, then, is not a whole lot more than mine, or any of about 300 who make up the audience. Every now and then, he whacks his shin pads loudly with his stick, perhaps just to remind teammates, opponents and us that he’s still on the field.

His CAG counterpart, on the other hand, is seeing plenty of action. 1-0 turns to 2-0 with a spectacular reverse flick on the run by BPCL’s No. 7, Manpreet Singh. (The band strikes up Señorita from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.) At half-time, it’s 3-0 and all present know the cup’s future is essentially decided.

Just after the second half resumes, there’s an outburst of feminine giggles behind me. Curious, I turn and notice for the first time that two entire rows are filled with women, most of them in saris. Something on the field has set them giggling and they seem unable to stop.

Later, one of them—pastel purple sari and hair in a bouncy ponytail—pushes past me and down, now giggling into her phone in Malayalam. I haven’t figured out what they found so funny, unless it’s the mounting score: 5-0 before CAG suddenly slams home a consolation goal. But not long after, it’s 6-1 and then the CAG goalie manages to angrily swat away a possible seventh goal and suddenly it’s the end of the match.

The woman in pastel purple walks onto the field and shakes the hand of each morose CAG player, whispering words of consolation. Their coach gathers them into a huddle and speaks—again in English—more words of consolation: “Don’t forget, there was hardly any difference between their game and yours!"

Past Indian hockey stars Viren Rasquinha and Dhanraj Pillay give away the awards, and the only reason to mention them here is that the first one, 10,000 for the goalie of the tournament, goes to the CAG goalie. I can’t help thinking he must feel just slightly abashed, going up to collect this prize after having six goals slammed past him.

And it’s when one of the announcers thanks the main sponsor that it finally sinks home. The main sponsor is Dabang Mumbai: the Mumbai team in the Hockey India League.

A hockey team from one domestic tournament, and it sponsors a totally different domestic tournament. There’s a commentary there; all I can say is, I hope it’s a good one for Indian hockey.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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