India tried, kept trying. Came close in 1988, then in 2000. But it kept slipping out like sand through fingers. The semifinals of the Olympic Games had become a mirage. Everytime the team felt ‘now it’s within reach’, it drifted further away. For 41 years, a shot at a medal never arrived. In Tokyo on Sunday, India earned two of them.
The display against Great Britain was like grabbing the quarterfinal by the scruff of its neck. The grip loosened for a bit at 2-1, but Hardik Singh’s classic Indian skills wrested the control back. India won 3-1. The hoodoo was broken. 21st century Indian hockey could now feel what the top four at the Olympics feels like.
Soon, the gates of a dam overflowing with adrenaline broke open. Social media was having an Indian party. Hashtags fought for space. Choking emotions were being put into words. It told how the sport united India, and how a united country can be so happy.
It also rekindled the connection with hockey, one that was there when even the Presidents and the Prime Ministers got involved in selection matters of the hockey team. That pride accepted no compromises, no defeats. Indian hockey of the ’60s and before was a source of joy for the country.
By 1956, India had completed two hat-tricks of Olympic gold medals. No country to date has been able to do that. And India added two more golds to that, besides a silver and two bronze. India was synonymous with hockey for a reason.
The class started waning in the late ’70s, and the 1982 Asian Games hammering at the hands of Pakistan swept the fan-base like a squall. India won the 1983 cricket World Cup while hockey’s failure at major competitions continued. The beneficiary was obvious.
But even in that phase after the ’80s, hockey never failed to produce stars. Pargat Singh, Jagbir Singh, Dhanraj Pillay, Dilip Tirkey lead that long list. And whenever hockey won anything major — like the 1998 and 2014 Asian Games gold, the country came together to celebrate. The connection was re-established.
Tokyo has done that once again. A first entry into the semifinals since the 1972 Munich Olympics was something that the whole country was waiting for. In 1980, when India last won a hockey medal at the Olympics (gold), there were no knockouts.
The Tokyo triumph so far has hinted at something — that hockey needs to produce one major result, an Olympic gold or another World Cup triumph, to be India’s sport of old. The one that makes every Indian feel like a winner.
Photo credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Imagine what a medal in Tokyo would do. Imagine the stars to be born. Imagine a Shamsher Singh, a six-match-old rookie who went to Tokyo and now has a fair shot at a medal. Imagine a Simranjit Singh or Varun Kumar, who were selected as reserves, then turned into ‘Alternate Players’ and then brought into the 16 after a 1-7 hammering against Australia. Both scored. Who writes these scripts?
Former India coach Harendra Singh makes a terrific point: “This will not be one medal. These will be 18 medals going to different parts of the country to inspire generations. Think about the huge country-wide impact the sport will make. This will be no mean feat, and I can stick my neck out and say that it will be an India vs Australia final,” he told TimesofIndia.com.
The celebrations after beating Great Britain on Sunday were very controlled. There were no wild flying high-fives, just smiles, handshakes and hugs. It puts the team’s matured nature into perspective. They want to go all the way. That definitely is the plan.