Hockey is a sport that was born on Indian soil. The legendary Major Dhyan Chand paved the way for hockey in India in the 1930s after helping his team win three consecutive Olympic gold medals. The popularity of major team sports in India is on a significant shift with Cricket grabbing all the attention. But youngsters like Harshvardhan Bishnoi have embedded the importance of embracing a game which is native to its land.
“I started playing hockey in 2005 and ended up liking it more than cricket or football because it is very fast in real sense. It makes me utilise my whole body, and I can play any sport because of the skills acquired from hockey,” says 24-year-old Bishnoi.
Bishnoi’s interest in hockey from an early age has been crucial for his overall development but don’t be mistaken to think it is an easy field sport. The pitch might be smaller than that of cricket or football, but there is more running to do and more sprints to make in this fast-paced sport.
“I injured my thumb though it and was operated. It just gave me more hunger to perform better on the field. I got selected for a school national tournament in 2012,” Bishnoi shares the journey of reaching this stage.
India does not have a national sport as told by the Ministry of Sports while replying to a Right to Information (RTI) application in 2012. With the popularity of Cricket in India, Hockey does not get enough importance. Despite improvements in this front, it still lags the support cricket generates in India. There is always a lot to be done if it wants to compete with a sport that is followed religiously in the Indian subcontinent.
“It was considered as a national sport due to India’s dominance in Hockey which saw them win eight gold medals in the Olympics. India dominated hockey until the 1960s. But then came the decline of Indian hockey due to the introduction of Astro turfs which were and are very expensive to build.”
In 1976, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) made it mandatory to play on Astro turfs and India being a developing country could not afford it. Before this point, hockey was what cricket in India is today. India won the Cricket World Cup in 1983, and the shift took place in favour of cricket. Since then India has empowered cricket which has made the Board of Cricket Council of India (BCCI) even more powerful than the International Cricket Council (ICC).
“Their (national hockey players) contract could see them earn around £12,000 per annum at the highest level. But it is still less than what a C grade cricket player earns with BCCI, i.e. £24,000 per annum. Indian Hockey players receive a considerable number of sponsors, but it is peanuts when compared to cricket,” Bishnoi explains the difference in salaries.
India has one of the world’s best hockey stadiums in the world, the Kalinga stadium, located in Bhubaneswar. The hockey infrastructure in India is improving considerably as they hosted the 14th edition of the Hockey World Cup in 2018.
“I had the privilege to play at the Dhyan Chand Stadium during my college days in New Delhi. I got goosebumps when I stepped on the turf. The maintenance of the Astro turfs is expensive as it costs around £950,000 to be constructed and it needs filtered water before and during every game.”
With a population that of India, sports demand to be convenient and less expensive so that all sections of the public can gain easy access to it. Some sports like golf and polo are only enjoyed by the elite, whereas others engage themselves in street cricket and football.
“The problem arises because hockey is the least popular of the three major team sports in India. To play football, you need a ball. To play cricket, you need a bat and a ball. But to play hockey, every player should have a stick of their own.”
Bishnoi believes that hockey has seen a lot of changes in the past fifteen years with minor adjustments to rules and regulations that keep it updated with the modern world. These changes have increased the pace of the game and have made it more end to end.
“I remember the offside rule being stricken off. Then the self-start rule was applied. Hockey has rolling substitutions, which makes it easier for players to play at their highest levels. FIH keeps tweaking the rules of the sport from time to time to make it more exciting while maintaining its original form,” commented Bishnoi.
New generation, new expectations?
Germany and Australia have been dominating the hockey world for quite some time now, sharing a total of four World Cup titles between them from the last five. Belgium was surprised winners of the World Cup last year, beating the Netherlands in a penalty shootout in the final.
“There is no other country in the world which has more skilful players than India and Pakistan. But the subcontinent players lack the physical aspects of the game. Indian hockey represents an attacking approach, much like Liverpool’s heavy metal football,” suggested Bishnoi.
An initiative called One Thousand Hockey Legs in India aims to select 1000 talented young players to foster their skills. The Hockey India League (HIL) can forge a good foundation for young players, somewhat like the Indian Super League (ISL) did to promote football in India. Although, the HIL is a newly formed league (2013) that may take time in delivering results depending on its popularity and success.
While it seems that teams like Australia, Germany and Belgium are pulling away from the rest of the pack, there are a lot of talented players in India waiting for someone to scout them. But with the winds of change blowing through a young side and the much-changed administration we can hope that India will once again dominate world hockey as it did during ‘The Wizard’ Major Dhyan Chand’s time.