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A high-five for our hockey team
September 05, 2003
Be it because we were playing against Pakistan; or that we were fighting for a bronze medal in one of hockey's premier tournaments. Be it because the media hard sold the event; or that we were made to believe that the hockey team had finally come of age. Be it only for a day, India took its national game seriously.
After a long time, the country looked excited about any sport that was not cricket. A Sunday face-off between India and Pakistan did manage to create a buzz, especially after the famous 7-4 victory over the rivals. But India disappointed and suddenly the Sunday brunch turned sour.
The hockey team won't have to undergo that fate, fortunately for them hockey in India is yet just a game and not a passion. A loss in hockey, even if it's against Pakistan, isn't shattering for the Indian sports fan.
Even if the defeat at the hands of Pakistan did not move us to tears, it caused a minor blip, a trace of disappointment. This is not the first time the Indian hockey team returned defeated, but it was the first time they got heavily criticized for it. Criticized for the way they mellowed our expectations. And we did have huge expectations.
Supporting hockey is not considered uncool anymore. The indifference for hockey in India is giving way to genuine concern. The conversations about the game have started to move out of the selected circles of gray pensioners and pot-bellied Sikhs. And even here a note of hope breaks the rhythm of the incessant cribs.
Why has India suddenly woken up to a game that has only past glory to talk of? Don't blame it on success alone.
Five years ago, the hockey team had returned home with an Asian gold medal to an empty reception and apathy on the part of the IHF officials. Those who should've been drowned in the event of celebration were sitting cold at the international terminus in Mumbai. That memory still stings. It should. For the entire sports community of India failed to mark an event in history that could've well signaled a renaissance in hockey.
A renaissance it certainly hasn't been, but Indian hockey has had a lot to cheer about. It has had more victories coming its way than it did in the 1990's. Winning the junior World Cup two years ago gave the sport a new high in India, and some of the players that have graduated in the senior team have breathed life into the dying game.
Success has followed and so has the media. After the win over Australia in Sydney, earlier this year, the scribes have chased the hockey team relentlessly. The media gave them a warm homecoming, put them on the front pages, discussed each day of their camp in Lucknow patiently and even celebrated Dhanralj Pillay's 35th birthday.
Oh no, the birthday cake he cut with his teammates during the camp wasn't provided by the media. But they made a heck of a good story out of it -- Dhanraj's first 'public' birthday. Funny, we slept over it till he got to 35. And honestly those personality profiles and 'his journey through life' kind of pieces were rather late in the day for a man of 35, and who has already been in the public domain close to 15 years
However, the journalists can be credited for giving hockey the much-needed attention. Through their coverage they have given Indian hockey a brand identity -- that of a young and vibrant team of spirited fighters. And slowly they are turning the young hockey stars into youth icons. It is not by accident that the names of Jugraj Singh, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur and Viren Rasquinha find more recognition than the others.
'Going Gaga over Gagan' has become the hottest tagline. The media gimmicks apart, Gagan Ajit Singh does have the whole country going gaga over him for the two electric goals he scored against Pakistan in the last league match.
A few bytes form the star were inevitable. But rather than going overboard about India's incredible show in that match, Gagan chose the moment to apologize to the Indian fans for the team's ordinary performance earlier in the tournament. This professed of humility rare to such talented and recently-arrived sport stars.
It is players like these that will endear the hockey stars to the Indian public. Include them in an ever-exciting world of the sport, and inspire youngsters to follow their footsteps. The Sunday loss notwithstanding, with talent like this, Indian hockey should be able to rule not only the world scene but also Indian hearts.
The world lives on hope, and Indian hockey certainly does.
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