Tokyo Olympics

Why this win means so much for an Indian hockey fan

Abhishek Sengupta/Dubai
Filed on August 1, 2021
Hardik Singh of India celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Great Britain. (Reuters)

The last time India reached this far to stare at something as significant as this was in Moscow in 1980 when they went on to win the Gold

For a generation of hockey lovers in India, it was a first of its kind Super Sporting Sunday as India thumped Great Britain 3-1 in the quarterfinal of the Olympics men’s hockey tournament to move into the medal round.

The last time India reached this far to stare at something as significant as this was in Moscow in 1980 when they went on to win the Gold. That was the last of their record eight top finishes- six of which had come to them back-to-back between 1928 and 1956 in an epoch-making period for world sport, not just Indian hockey. Only Team US that owned sailing’s America’s Cup for 132 years before being beaten in 1983, has had a streak – the most dominant in history – more remarkable than India’s hockey gold rush at the Olympics.

Yet for the little over the last four decades since, all India’s hockey men returned home with was hope. Hope for the next Summer Games in four years’ time, only to disappoint again. And again, until this time in Tokyo. India are still not assured of a medal and they might well return home, not for the first time, empty-handed. And this will happen if they lose to Belgium on August 3 and then again, if everything go awry in the Bronze playoff match against the losing side between Germany and Australia. But what if they just beat Belgium and then win the final? Will it change the landscape of India’s sporting culture? Will Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, and Hardik Singh, the scorers last night against Great Britain,become a household name like the Kohlis and Dhonis. Nobody knows but for a generation starved of real success on the hockey pitch, this is perhaps the best shot at reviving the lost glory and spawning a new generation of fans who will have something to talk about and someone to look up to.

As the only travelling international journalist at the 2008 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, I had once managed to tuck myself into the official team bus on a day-long retreat India had planned in between a turnaround streak of four wins on their way to the finals.

Another day, another place in these times of Covid, and especially after today, it would have been unthinkable but that was a different era when hockey, still languishing in the dustbowls of nondescript villages of India, lacked the elitism and exclusivity reserved for England’s obscenely paid footballers and India’s rich cricketers.

As the tables slowly turned in favour of India in the tournament they eventually finished as runners-up, the diminutive AK Bansal, the then coach of India, decided to give his boys some time off the turf. And so off they went on a day-long retreat to the old colonial port city of George Town in Penang, about 160 km up north of Ipoh in Perak where they were playing one of hockey’s most famous annual invitational hockey tournaments.

As lunch time approached, the team stopped by for a simple daal-roti lunch on their way back. And I was called in too, to join them. No entourage, no-frills, no air, no kingly status or demands for it, no tantrums for lack of five-star treatment. Sardar Singh, the captain, and Sandeep Singh, whose life later even inspired a Taapsee Pannu movie, were two of the biggest names in that team along with an up-and-coming 20-year-old PR Sreejesh, whose scintillating performance at Tokyo’s Oi Hockey stadium last night, kept India in the game throughout.

I saw firsthand that day how they wore humility on their sleeves and welcomed outsiders. That could have been perhaps because of how no one really cared about their fortunes except a few like me on a specific assignment, how no one really chased them for their soundbytes, how no one really went after them with moneybags and endorsements as they do for premier league’s footballers and India’s cricketers.

I hope after Sunday’s performance against Great Britain at Tokyo 2020, India’s sports fans start caring a bit more about other sports, about Indian hockey and football. The men in blue truly deserve this much for all the hard work they surreptitiously put in weeks in and weeks out, away from the media glare and public scrutiny. And this is their best shot at finding the El Dorado they have been seeking, for the last 41 years.

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