It could well be the Olympics when Indian hockey re-wrote its destiny. In a period of less than 24 hours after the men beat Great Britain to get into an Olympic hockey semi-final for the first time in 49, the women went one better – beat Australia to get into the semi-final for the first-ever time.
The men have in the past raised hope only to see them being crushed, but the women were really never given a chance to get into medal contention. The women were 12th out of 12 teams in Rio in 2016, and that was only the second time they had ever played at the Olympic Games.
The first time the women played at the Olympics was in Moscow in 1980 and they were fourth, and that was also the last time the men stood on a podium. But those were a truncated Games with just six teams each in either section and there was just a league competition. So, the men would have to go back to 1972 which was the last time they played a semi-finals.
Despite losing to Belgium in the semi-finals, Indian men still have a good shot at the bronze medal now. Similarly, the women will have a chance to play for bronze if they lose the semi-final against Argentina.
Hockey is often called the ‘National sport’ – it would be more appropriate to say that it has a greater emotional appeal. But the spoils from the sponsors’ always seem to be reserved for the cricketers. Yet it is no secret that even the cricketers watch Indian hockey play whenever they can. Yes, it has an emotional tug like no other sport.
There was a time when hockey was the ‘only’ sport India knew or cared about. But that was when hockey brought successive six Olympic gold medals from 1928 to 1956 and then again in 1964 and 1980. There were silver in between 1960 and bronze in 1968 and 1972. And then were none from 1980 onwards.
Indian hockey did have a great chance to re-build its image in modern times when they won the World Cup in 1975, after bronze in 1971 and silver in 1973. The commentary was then on radio, but the game had a massive popularity.
When India was collecting successive hockey gold medals, Indian cricket was neither as successful nor had grown to the proportions it has now, though the successes of the cricket team under Ajit Wadekar in 1971 did make a case for cricket. However, TV was still not king.
Things began to change in the 1980s. Cricket continued on an ascendant and hockey was struggling to hold its own.
Eight years after India won a World Cup in hockey, India won the cricket World Cup in 1983. By then, post the 1982 Asian Games, TV had entered the mind space of Indian fans. TV and media was more alive and alert by 1983 and cricket soon overtook hockey. Money began coming into sport and cricket slowly but steadily grabbed healthy chunks of the pie.
Hockey did have its chances again in 1998 and 2014 with Asian Games gold medals, but the game stayed way behind in terms of attracting more sponsors. Youngsters now wanted to play cricket more than hockey – and the money associated with cricket more so after the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) was a big factor.
Sure, hockey made its move with a fairly successful league and more stagings of big events home at home, but money was still way less than what cricket attracted.
Yet the stories coming from the hockey arena were compelling – just as they were when MS Dhoni started the wave of smaller towns throwing up talent from modest family backgrounds.
An Olympic medal could change that – without doubt sponsors are more likely to pour money with an Olympic medal to back it.
In Tokyo, the men were seen as a possible semi-final candidate, but the women were too long a shot to even raise a hope. If the Indian men shrugged off a bruising 1-7 loss to Australia and won the other four matches, the women lost three matches before winning the next two to make their first-ever quarter-final. The quarter-final itself is a recent concept having been applied only from 2016.
Arriving in Tokyo, a year later than planned – 2021 as against 2020 – Indian men had positioned themselves as strong candidates for the semi-finals. Yet, too, many times in the past they had disappointed and failed to do so.
Notorious for their slow starts at big events, the Indians began with a win, followed by a loss to Australia and closed with wins over Spain, Argentina and Japan to finish second in the pool.
What was heartening was that the Indians scored well – 15 goals, second only to Australia’s 22. Apart from the seven they gave away against Australia, India gave away only six goals in four other matches.
Led by goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, the likes of Harmanpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh, Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar and Amit Rohidas were playing their parts well. Also, the Indians seemed to hang on with full intent and vigour till the very last second of every quarter.
If there was a concern, it was that they were giving away too many penalty corners and the European teams, as also Australia, are good at converting them with specialists whose pile drivers and strong drag flicking are an ever-present threat.
The women with nothing to lose and everything to gain lost their first three games to the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, but they won the next two against Ireland with a goal three minutes from finish; and against South Africa on the back of a triple strike by Vandana Katariya, whose winning goal came in the final quarter. It was an all-round effort with excellent usage of rolling substitutions.
Fourth in the group, Indian women would have seemed to have reached their zenith with a quarter-final place and were up against Australia, one of the biggest contenders for gold. Yet, with nothing but a prayer to support them, Gurjit Kaur converted a penalty corner in the second quarter. And then the Indian defence guarded the fortress well, even as the rattled Australians became desperate as the clock started ticking away. They won a lot of penalty corners but could not convert them. The hooter sounded and Indian women were in the semi-finals and in contention for a medal.
Suddenly the girls from small villages all over India were stars, but like the men this transformation did not happen overnight. They have been around for a while. Like the men, they too, had won an Asian Games silver ahead of the likes of Korea in 2018.
If the men had fulfilled the promise they showed, the women left everyone shaking their heads in disbelief amidst chants of the 2007 Bollywood film ‘Chak de India’ based on Indian women’s hockey.
The India women’s hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne and his team had tears rolling down their faces and captain Rani Rampal, who is among the biggest women stars of Indian sport, said, “It’s the biggest moment for Indian hockey. Men’s and women’s team in semis. I’m super proud of the team. We said to each other – give it you all and we did exactly that.”
Coach Marijne, when asked about the next step, summed it up beautifully, “They will enjoy first. They should enjoy this moment.”
Having travelled the world for tournaments and bi-lateral matches, the hockey men and the women are no longer in awe of the opposition.
But, they do have us looking at them in awe and with great hope.