"Iss desh mein ghar-ghar khel sakte hain, politics khel sakte hain, cricket khel sakte hain, but hockey? Hockey nahin". Shah Rukh Khan's pungent dialogue from his sports drama film Chak De India makes more sense now than ever. In a country obsessed with just cricket which is most watched, most covered and almost like an alternate religion for its citizens, the recent stellar achievements of the Indian national hockey team have been going unnoticed.
In a build-up to the Fintro World Hockey League semi-finals to be held in Belgium from June 20 to July 5, host broadcaster Star Sports has released a compelling 45-second ad film that aims at garnering support for the most anticipated Indian men's hockey team. The video features star players such as captain Sardar Singh, Sreejesh Raveendran and Birendra Lakra along with chief coach Paul Van Ass, educating a room full of Indian reporters in a presser that the team has had their best performance streak last year in almost fifteen years, yet there is no support from the public or the media. The boys have not only beaten the top five teams of the world in a year, but are also the first ones to book a berth in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games after winning the 2014 Asian Gold by defeating Pakistan after a spell of 16 years.
However, the encouragement from their countrymen is still missing. "The world knows about it, but India doesn't," Dutch coach Van Ass grimaces in the video. Even though hockey is an exhilarating, intense and fast-paced game, India has long forgotten about the charms of their national sport. There was a time when hockey was a craze in every household. The men's national team was untouchable by any other country in the world. Between 1928-1956, they won the gold medal at the Olympic Games six times in a row. India played 24 Olympic matches, won all of them, scored 178 goals at an average of 7.43 goals per match and conceded only 7 goals. When independent India played Britain in the 1948 Olympics at the Wembley Stadium for the very first time in an official hockey match, almost 25,000 people filled up the stadium to push their nation to victory over their previous rulers. Such was the support of the fans. Even in crucial moments of the game, when the legs were wobbling and the corners got rough, the tricolour was flying high and Indians roared with pride while singing their newly composed national anthem in the honour of their players on the field.
Despite a steep slump in performance post Indian hockey's golden era, the men's team managed to secure the Olympic gold in 1964 and 1980, taking the total tally of Olympic Gold to 8. But by then, our cheers had died a painful death along with our interest in hockey. The numbers in the stadiums began to dwindle and all eyes turned towards the cricket pitch next door where a miracle boy by the name of Tendulkar was weaving another history in the chapter of Indian sports.
However, our boys are now back with their sticks and renewed force to win the hearts of their people. With rare successes under their belt in the last year including defeating world champions Australia four times in 2014, they are confident of redeeming their image in the eyes of the Indian public. Under the leadership of coach Van Ass, the Indian team aims to up their game by marrying their Asian style of short passes and dribbling with increased speed and agility. Along with strengthening their core comprising of Sardar Singh, VR Raghunath, Birendra Lakra and Akashdeep Singh, the men's focus has been on closing the gaps in their defence and improving their penalty corner conversion rate. With an Olympic berth safely secured, coach Van Ass now aims to test out his new formations in the tournament and finish in the top three of the World League Series. India have been placed in Pool A with Australia, France, Pakistan and Poland and will start their campaign against France on June 20.
And while we're at it, let's not forget to cheer for the Indian national women's hockey team as they too will be playing the Fintro World Hockey league semis in Antwerp, Begium from June 20. Under the captaincy of halfback Ritu Rani and chief coach Mathias Ahrens, the women's team is looking to finish in the top three slots to book the all-important berth for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Placed in Pool B along with Australia, New Zealand, Belgium and Poland, India will begin their campaign on the first day of the tournament on June 20, against the host nation Belgium.
So as the teams kit up to bring back hockey back into our hearts, it's time to tune our television sets, smear saffron, white and green on our cheeks, raise our virtual sticks in the air and scream 'Chak de India!'. Now let the games begin. We're ready.
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