ALMOST TWO years to the day, I had written a blog post about why hockey is a game young and upwardly mobile India would love. In that blog I had pointed out that “Furious, virtually non stop and always action packed – field hockey is by far the fastest team game I have ever seen. The phrase ‘end to end’ action gets a whole new meaning when the ball is traveling across the 100 yards of the pitch in a flash.” The pace, the excitement and the skill makes it a great spectacle and it deserves better treatment (even if it were not the national game) from both fans and administrators alike than it is currently getting. Back then when I wrote that piece, the hockey World Cup was on in India and I had hopefully concluded – “India needs a glamorous hockey league, one that can catapult the national game back into the hearts of the masses. But most critically,us fans and the players need to get used to life in the fast game!” And that is exactly why the World Series of Hockey that started on 29th February has me all excited. Granted, the IPL like idea of hockey franchises playing, in effect, an IPL for Hockey isn’t exactly a stroke of super original thinking from Nimbus but it should get the buzz and support for the right reasons. Yours truly has already committed to supporting the idea by promising himself that all home games of the Karnataka Lions franchise will be attended. And it hasn’t been a bad start at all!
My tryst with hockey at the KHSA stadium in Bangalore, where the Lions are playing their games, started serendipitously on a Sunday in February when me and a couple of friends happened to be passing by the grounds and realized there was a hockey match on. On a whim, we entered (the entry was open and free) and enjoyed a rather pulsating second half of hockey in what turned out to be the final of the Field Marshall KM Cariappa Memorial Cup. For the record, Madivala beat Banaswadi 3-1 in the final.
The game and its skills have always fascinated me and it was a no brainer that I should pick up the reasonably priced Rs. 100 ticket for the WSH games, notwithstanding the fact that the Indian national players were not being allowed to participate in the tournament. There were the veterans – Karnataka had the legend Dhanraj Pillai and the classy Arjun Halappa and some youth and foreign talent and I figured it is worth an examination.
The first day, a whole posse of 8 of us – friends who were sports enthusiasts, friends who had played hockey at the college level only because there was too much competition for places on the cricket team (!), and another friend and his wife and kid landed up at the KHSA stadium for the first home game of the Karnataka Lions against the Bhopal Badshahs. The stadium was almost 75% full, an encouraging sight despite the fact that the capacity was only 7000. Unfortunately, the game in question didn’t produce the kind of fireworks I had gushed about in my ‘Life In the Fast Game’ blog two years ago. The two teams played like they were set on the demo mode of the hockey equivalent of FIFA 12 being played by two novice gamers on a PlayStation 2. A lethargic looking Karnataka were thumped 3-1.
One of the friends, who was enthusiastic enough to return for the game the next day (against the Chandigarh Comets) was also skeptical in the same breath predicting a calamitous drop in attendance owing to the teams’ lackluster show. But day 2 turned out to be a whole different kettle of fish – a day which restored my faith in both our capacity to restore the pride we take in this game as well as our ability to be a sensible and mature audience. Firstly, the pace and skills picked up significantly from the last game (perhaps the players were just rusty) and with a 60% full house (contradicting the dire prediction me and my friend were fearing) the effect was energizing and magical. Once again there were the kids from the Army School neatly dressed in their uniform and cheering with gusto. Once again there were a lot of families and people spread across all age groups having a good time. Possibly sensing the obligation they have of entertaining the crowd, the Lions stepped up their game carving out a 3-0 lead, all goals coming through drag flicks from former India star Len Aiyappa (let’s call him Sandeep Singh V 1.0, or maybe Sandeep is Len v 2.0). Even Dhanraj Pillai ran as fast as his aging legs would carry him and managed a flash of golden brilliance from his heyday when he threaded an almost perfect through pass.
There were many other reasons to cherish and enjoy this experience, whether it was watching the kids who looked on at the game with excitement and absorbed the spectacle, or the 5 year old who screamed ‘You Should Stop and hit!’ after a sharp Arjun Halappa cross was not trapped properly inside the D and a scoring opportunity went abegging. And of course, there’s the much discussed but never understood point about exposure. [Insert your own of cheerleader joke here] On the second day, a hockey coach who had come to watch the game with his protégés and was sitting right beside us proved to be delightful company. Coach Alison not only pointed out to his wards the nuances of the game (‘See, that’s what you do wrong’ was a line he kept on repeating as he pointed out moves on the field) but also had a great sense of humor. As a fracas broke out at the back with some audience members arguing with the organizers about not vacating seats reserved for mediapersons, one of Coach Alison’s students looked back. The coach calmed him saying ‘Don’t look there…it’s their problem, let them sort it out…you enjoy the game’ before quickly adding ‘If a fight breaks out then we’ll join in!’. As the clock wound down, we screamed at the Lions to hold on to the ball as they protected a narrow 3-2 lead. Unfortunately an erroneous pass resulted in the ball landing up with a Comets defender. Alison went, ‘Don’t shoot! You also just hold the ball’ as peals of laughter were heard from our row.
I am not sharing these experiences because I have been paid by the WSH (I wish!) or because I want everyone to suddenly become hockey lovers. I am sharing it because surely, all these are reasons to celebrate a sport that is difficult to master but a joy to watch. Spare a thought for the kids in the academies toiling out their backs, and taking knocks from a hard hockey ball on the shins day in and day out, trying to persevere to preserve a legacy that we all need, but based on current patronage, no one deserves. Market forces and their vicissitudes will always have their say, but the knee jerk reactions are uncalled for. Much like the unnecessary noise that daily stock market analysts produce on business television, pitching hockey one day as the new game to lose your heart to after the cricket team has a disastrous game or three and worrying that cricket will be back in the ascendancy eclipsing hockey after one turnaround performance is an irrationally irritable argument.
At the WSH, after the first game I could have given up saying it’s no fun because the action wasn’t slick enough. But I persevered for the next day and received a rich dividend. And that’s why what this kind of a concept needs is patience and support. In a hockey game, the build-up play can sometimes be frustratingly slow consisting of midfield nothingness for a while but when an attack finally happens, the results are often spectacular and thoroughly memorable. The same can happen with this game in this country that finds itself being parented by a motely and possibly demented crew of competing parents. Let’s not get caught up in the clichéd arguments about our past glory and current neglect. Let’s just discover the game anew. WSH has to succeed and not end up like its predecessor, the PHL (the Premier Hockey League, an experiment started by ESPN that barely made it to its third season) because more 5-year old kids running around in the stands need to discover the magic of the hockey stick.