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|August 22, 2000||
India, Pak hope to revive hockey magicSunil Kataria in New Delhi
Former hockey powerhouses India and Pakistan are hoping to emerge from Olympic wilderness to recapture their old glory at next month's Sydney Games.
The South Asian arch-rivals once were unmatched wizards of the game with quick-footed, magical dribbling that dazzled European and other rivals.
But things have never been the same since 1980.
The more aggressive European and Australian styles have overpowered the artistic Indian and Pakistani stickwork, and players on the subcontinent have struggled to adapt their game from grass to synthetic surfaces.
Another factor has been a steadily waning interest in hockey.
But Indian officials this year are banking on a crop of youngsters and a rigorous emphasis on fitness to yield dividends.
"Indian hockey is on the verge of a great revival. We are expecting at least to make it to the semifinals in Sydney and after that its anybody's game," K.P.S. Gill, president of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), told Reuters in New Delhi.
India dominated hockey when it was played on grass, winning eight gold, one silver and two bronze medals at the Olympics.
But they have not won a major international tournament since a hollow success in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, boycotted by Western nations because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Pakistan have won eight medals, including three golds, in 11 Games, but like India have hit a dry spell in the last three Olympics. They were fifth in 1998, won the bronze in 1992 and finished sixth four years ago in Atlanta, the worst ever for the team.
Hockey-watchers in India blame a delay in reacting to the astro turf as a major turning point in the subcontinent's hockey fortunes.
India's coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran told Reuters from a training camp in the southern city of Bangalore that readjusting to synthetic surfaces after honing their skills on natural grass put the subcontinental players at a disadvantage.
"I think we were late in reacting to the astro turf. Players in countries like Germany and Holland are born and brought up on these surfaces while our players learn their skills on grass and then move on to astro turf," said Bhaskaran, who led India to its last Olympic gold in Moscow.
India, spread over 3.2 million sq km, has only 22 grounds with astroturf, and 10 are in poor condition, Bhaskaran said. That compares with nearly 80 to 90 in both Holland and Germany.
But IHF's Gill said the entire blame could not be heaped on a change in surface. "I think our whole sports policy since independence is to blame for this mess," he said.
Gill, a former police official with a reputation for toughness, said funds were not being properly used by local administrators, leading to a shortage of infrastructure at school and college levels.
Pakistan's captain Ahmed Alam said a drop in public interest, tied to a fall in media coverage and fewer international events, were to blame for the recent setbacks.
"The exposure to hockey has been reduced, which in turn has reduced the public interest in the game," he said.
He also said frequent changes in teams and managers in recent years had caused a loss of morale among the players.
Cricket is very much the subcontinent's favourite game. Many observers blame poor compensation for players and a shortage of sponsors for the waning interest in hockey, which is still India's official national game.
"Players play for country, and apart from that there are no other returns. Whatever returns are there are not commensurate with the amount of efforts that go in. Sponsorships are also not easy because everybody wants to spend only on cricket," Gill said.
"The fall in hockey coincided with a rise in the popularity of cricket. In 1980, we won our last major hockey title and in 1983 we won the cricket World Cup," Gill said.
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