ON THURSDAY, FORMER Indian hockey captain Viren Rasquinha tweeted about how the media was cold shouldering the Hockey World Championship that was about to begin the next day in Odisha. He wrote: ‘Extremely disappointed with mainstream media & top Indian newspapers on lack of Hockey coverage. Hockey World Cup starts tomorrow. India is hosting it. Been barely any articles even on our own players. We have brilliant hockey journalists. Give them some space please!!!’ How far the fortunes of hockey have fallen in the country that calls it its national sport is all the more striking when compared to the frenzy that the recently concluded Football World Cup had evoked. That was being held in another country without India even participating, also telling you it can’t just be the obsession with cricket to blame for hockey’s decline.
Cricket firmly triumphed over hockey in the 1980s and it is interesting to imagine what would have happened if the face-off between the two had happened today. Because cricket could only be picked up so obsessively by a country where a mostly poor and underemployed people had a lot of time on their hands to spend a whole day or five days following a game. In post-liberalisation India today, with the youth mostly employed, it might not have had that many takers (of course in the thought experiment T20 would still not be there). But hockey, even though it is tailored for brevity, might still not have taken the place of cricket. One reason for that is that we stopped being world champions and as the Europeans and Australians took over, India wasn’t even one of those among the top. Victory is a necessary condition for a sport’s popularity. Cricket’s success was also because it got great administrators over the last few decades, while the state of hockey was a mess.
There used to be a time when hockey had superstars whose appeal went beyond only those who followed the game. But without winning international tournaments, there were no such personalities. Every school kid with a bat wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar but where were the Dhyan Chands? The circle became vicious. Without mass appeal, there is no big ticket money. Without the money, there is no expansion of infrastructure and without that the numbers who play the game become lesser. And if people don’t play, then the sport begins to fade from the minds of even those who don’t play. It is difficult to find hockey on the streets of Mumbai anymore, a fairly common sight some decades ago. Rasquinha’s tweet is targeted at the media but the lack of coverage is merely the symptom. It only reflects what newspapers or television channels perceive as lack of interest among their viewers.
It is hard to see how any of this will change. Hosting the World Cup is not necessarily the ticket for it. Winning it might however light a spark. But for it to catch a fire is a long way off. Hockey’s decline was spread over decades and any revival too, if at all, will be equally drawn out.