I am not a morning person. But Tuesday morning was different. I was up early, as was the entire family, for the India-Belgium match in the Olympic hockey semi-final. The game moved us, like millions of Indian fans, from ecstasy to anxiety, and pain. The Indian men’s team was outplayed, yet this defeat did not leave us humiliated, it did not erase the earlier joy of watching that brilliant solo goal against Britain by Hardik Singh. Or the sheer pride of the Chak De moment when our women’s hockey team defeated Australia.
It took me back nearly half a century ago, to my school days. The only claim to fame of my school, SGN Khalsa Higher Secondary School, Sri Ganganagar, with a preponderance of rural Sikh boys, was its sports prowess. In those days, 6-8 members of Rajasthan’s playing XI used to be from my school. My college, SGN Khalsa College, enjoyed the same reputation in hockey and athletics. I played hockey, never went beyond the school’s Team C, but was enough to be selected for AIR’s panel of hockey commentators for the Asian Games in 1982.
Like everyone around me, I was an avid hockey fan then. Indian hockey was past its golden era, but not out of international reckoning. We had only heard about Dhyan Chand, but his son Ashok Kumar was our hero. I did not know much about Balbir Singh, but I remember how awestruck I was when I got to shake hands with Ajit Pal Singh, the legendary centre-half. The defining moment of hockey glory was the last minute goal by Aslam Sher Khan in the semi-final of the Kuala Lumpur World Cup in 1975 that India went on to win. There was no television in my town then. The pleasure of hockey came through Jasdev Singh’s radio commentary. You had to add visuals, action and colours on your own. For my generation then, Indian hockey team was the flag-bearer of our national pride. It wasn’t a safe bet, yet worth it.
Like most of my friends, my passion for hockey quietly gave way to cricket. It began with the visit of Clive Lloyd’s team to India in the winter of 1974-75, a series in which Gordon Greenidge, Vivian Richards and Andy Roberts made their debut. My personal favourites were G. Viswanath, Brijesh Patel, and of course, BS Chandrasekhar, all from Karnataka. India lost the series, but not its pride. The introduction of astroturf in the 1976 Olympics had begun a steep and irreversible decline of Indian hockey, notwithstanding the facile gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It coincided with the rise of cricket, leading up to the dream victory in the 1983 World Cup.
Some friends came together to form a local cricket team, grandly named the Eleven Star Club. The new APMC yard, not yet inaugurated, was our cricket ground. TV had just entered my town, though not my home. Its five-metre-high antenna, the new symbol of social status, was more likely to catch Lahore TV station than our own Doordarshan’s signal from Amritsar. Cricket stars — I had added Kapil Dev to the list now — were the new national heroes. India was still an underdog, with an occasional upset that uplifted our pride. When India was not playing, I was happy to support West Indies or Pakistan and admire Vivian Richards or Zaheer Abbas. That was the heyday of Third World solidarity and the Non-aligned Movement.
For nearly two decades after, I lost touch with the world of sports. Professional passions overshadowed my occasional interest in cricket. Hockey was a faint memory. Lagaan tickled, but failed to rekindle my interest in cricket. Chak De! India did bring tears, but for a world that did not exist anymore.
By the time my sports fanatic son reconnected me to that world a few years ago, cricket was a new game. Twenty20 has changed the format and the pace, even for Test cricket. Thankfully, I don’t look down upon these changes. I love T20 matches. Who wouldn't enjoy a feast of sixers? I marvel at how a format designed for batsmen is now dominated by bowlers. I am truly in awe of the talent pool that Indian cricket is now.
Yet, I don’t feel a thing. Cricket is now an extension of the entertainment industry. I cannot bear to read about the players’ auction. I fail to connect IPL teams to the cities and regions they supposedly represent. I know we are the hub of international cricket, but that does not add in any way to my national self-esteem. I see and hear India fans, within and outside the country, with face paints and T-shirts, but I cannot tell them from English football fans. I simply cannot join their roar. The victory in the 2007 T20 World Cup did not mean what the triumph in the 1983 cricket World Cup or the 1975 hockey World Cup meant.
I felt something similar with our hockey teams in the Olympics this time. No doubt, hockey too has changed: the four-quarter format, the pace of the game, and the new set of rules. Yet it is the same game. The Indian women’s hockey team’s victory over Australia the other day tugged at my heart the same way as the victory of Ajit Pal Singh’s team did 46 years ago. The stories of women hockey players are not dissimilar to the stories of Indian hockey in the 1970s. I don’t care if they don’t win any Olympic medals. For me, even in their defeat, the women and men of Indian hockey are the new national icons.
My story is not quite my story. It is very much the story of a generation that saw the transition from a thick yet porous post-colonial nationalism to the hard, flat and thin ultra-nationalism so typical of our times. Hockey of the 1970s and cricket till the 1980s represented the pride of the underdog, the hesitant entrant on the world stage. Mass hysteria around cricket today is the cultural carrier of boorishness, its outward confidence barely masking the hollowness inside. Ashis Nandy, who wrote a story of politics of colonialism around cricket, reminded us: “Cricket heroes have become, for the increasingly uprooted, humiliated, decultured Indian, the ultimate remedy for all the failures — moral, economic and political — of the country.”
The resurgence of Indian hockey in this context assures me that another deeper and positive nationalism still lives inside us. It may have been overshadowed, but it is not erased from our national consciousness. Or am I dreaming?
Views are personal
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