Once a sport has slipped out of the national consciousness, no amount of artificial resuscitation will bring it back to life.
In Bollywood, they often speak first and don’t pause to think later. Into that category must fall Suniel Shetty’s assertion that one man alone can save Indian hockey—Rahul Gandhi. It’s a wild connection, but there is a lesson in it for Shetty himself. The disappearance of certain sports from a nation’s consciousness is a little like loss of stardom. Both Shetty and Akshay Kumar began together with the same billing. One soon dropped off the charts and the other is now a superstar. You can cite many reasons for it—lack of talent, wrong selection of movies, bad managers or just plain bad luck. But once it’s over, it’s over. Just ask Govinda or Amitabh. So long as they hung on to the illusion, the humiliations piled on. Once they accepted reality, there was peace in playing the sidekick too.
There are many things Sonia Gandhi’s son is good at—getting onto suburban trains, dropping unexpectedly into a Dalit’s house, winning elections—but breathing life into the dead is not one of them. If Rahul Gandhi can make Suniel Shetty a superstar, then he will be able to turn hockey around. Unfortunately, both look unlikely.
It is hard to say with certainty why some sports go into terminal decline. Cricket in India has been a roaring success, but the same sport is dying in the West Indies. It’s also hard to figure out what is cause and what is effect. For example, it could be argued that West Indian cricket declined because it could never manage to replace the dream line-up of the late 1970s and 1980s. Or the exact opposite could be argued—that they couldn’t find such replacements because the game declined.
Indian hockey’s slow death is sometimes attributed to cricket, sometimes to the time when they stopped winning Olympic medals, sometimes to administrators like KPS Gill, sometimes to India being too lazy a nation to take to such a frenetic game (and hence cricket, where most of the time most of the players are waiting). There is even a theory that the ball is too small for television screens and this is the reason that it never got a footing in the new age. It could also be said that no sport can ever be popular in India and cricket is the only exception. Maybe there is merit in all of the above, but there is no way to know what came first, the decline or KPS Gill. But it exists and all the endless controversies which surround the sport, like unpaid salaries and player rebellion, are signs of the sudden death minutes.
The hockey World Cup, which kicks off in India on 28 February, is again touted to be the big boost to revive the sport. It’s a long, long shot. Like Suniel Shetty’s stardom.