Harmanpreet Singh and his men triumphed at the recently concluded Men’s Asian Champions Trophy, the win pumped in some much needed impetus to Indian hockey’s long-awaited revival.
Cricket, cricket, cricket… If there is one sport that the Indian diaspora has pledged its loyalty to, it’s cricket. Over the past 40-odd years, the masses have sacrificed their sleep, peace and energy just to watch the ‘gentleman’s game’ weave its magic. And they never get tired of it. In fact, the patronage of cricket has reached such heights that many forget there are other sports in the country too. Way before the folklore of 1983, way before Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, if there was one sport that united the entire nation at any given time, it was field hockey.
But somewhere, for some reason, cricket ascended and hockey descended. It descended to unbearable lows, only being watched sporadically during the Olympics or Asian Games. The onset of cricket pushed hockey into confused oblivion. Hockey had to be revived, and it had to be revived quickly before it reached a point of irreparable damage.
And revived it was, revived with style, grit, passion and enthusiasm. The problem was hardly ever the quality of the team, it was the fans’ changing loyalties. But the recently concluded Men’s Asian Champions Trophy, held in Chennai, brought back the golden memories that hockey provided to the public over 40 years ago. One major issue with this men’s hockey side has been their vulnerability of conceding goals in the dying moments of the game, a pitfall that has culminated in heartbreaking defeats.
But the final of the tournament, against the formidable Malaysia, exposed a new side of the coin, a side that was much needed to boost hockey’s presence again. After falling to a 1–3 deficit despite scoring the opening goal, fans braced themselves for a sad repetition of India’s biggest Achilles heel; squandering a lead and conceding one instead.
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But this time around, that moment never came. Instead of crumbling under pressure, the Indian tigers roared back. The hushed silence in Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium turned into raucous chants of ‘India India’ as the onlookers desperately tried to lift the drooping shoulders of the eleven warriors. Such cheers have, in the past, led to the team conversely feeling even more nervous and ginger, but this time the effect was spot on. India flipped the script over with three goals in 11 minutes to romp home with a 4–3 victory. Those dying moments of the game were what everyone desires to see in sport; class, perseverance, and the spirit to never give up. Skipper Harmanpreet Singh and his men displayed an immaculate combination of masterful dribbling, inch-perfect passes and continuous forward presses. The calculated wizardry blew away the domination of the Malaysians, who were themselves playing at a delectably high level.
For a long time in the third quarter the crowd kept silent as India’s recent choking losses, like the one against New Zealand earlier this year in the World Cup (lost on penalties after leading 2–0), or the embarrassing one against Australia in the final of the Commonwealth Games last year (lost 0–7) began to jog everyone’s memory. But India kept the monster of the big occasion at bay this time around, and pounced back to slay it.
The masterful drag flicks of Harmanpreet, delicious playmaking of Karthi Selvam, dribbling prowess of Manpreet Singh, midfield magic of Amit Rohidas, coupled with timely and crucial contributions from Akashdeep, Mandeep, Jugraj, Jarmanpreet, Gurjant, Sumit and the ever-impressive Sreejesh, ensured that the flawless beauty of Indian hockey was on full display. The young crop is showing wonderful skill, as well as promise, hunger and resolve.
The Indian team crossed two hurdles at once; playing a final without nerves taking over, and coming from behind to snatch victory. Two massive barricades were eradicated. With the Olympics and Asian Games only a blink of an eye away, Indian hockey lovers will be over the moon after seeing such renewed fight and spirit in the team, something that had been missing for decades. The massively passionate support at Chennai throughout the tournament was testament to the fact that hockey is still dearly loved by the pupils, who want the team to get back to winning ways on the big stage again.
Cricket and hockey must work side by side. They are both massively loved sports, and the major trophy cabinet in both sports has been dusty for a while now. (The last Olympic gold in hockey was way back in 1980, with the last Asian Games gold coming in 2014; while the last T20 Cricket World Cup India won was in 2007, and the ODI edition in 2011). While cricket has maintained its popularity, hockey needs the injection of the Olympics after over four decades of chasing the golden circle. Though India won bronze at the 2020 Games, an Olympic gold will revolutionize hockey, and elevate it to the pinnacle of Indian sporting culture once again.
The young guns with the twisted hockey stick in their hands are shaping up marvelously well, and to see them dribble their way to the top of the charts would be a sight to savour. One big victory, and everything will smoothly fall into place. New training facilities, kids with renewed interest in hockey, larger fan following, and more domestic leagues will help not only in enhancing the emotional weight that hockey holds, but will also commercialize the game and bring in more money. Hockey and cricket must grow together, success in both arenas is equally important to the fans, and should the hockey boys continue this climb up the ladder of glory, it will rightfully regain its spot as the paramount sport of India. After all it never was, and never will be hockey vs. cricket. It will always be hockey and cricket.