60 Years after the First Battle: Curtain Raiser to the Olympic Hockey Qualifier

Published in the March 2008 issue of PUSH, the only independent print magazine on hockey in UK

Every sport has traditional national rivalries. In hockey, a mention of rivalry between India and Great Britain will surprise many but on further investigation it can be seen that it was perhaps the first real rivalry in this sport. As an added twist the rivalry took root when India was ruled by the British as a part of the British Empire.

Hockey was invented by the British who also dominated the sport in the early years. England won both the first two Olympics hockey competitions in 1908 and 1920. In 1928, when hockey became a permanent Olympic sport however India took over the domination of Olympic hockey, the magnitude of and the longevity of which can never be equaled. The issue is slightly muddled by the fact that GB did not compete in 1928, 1932 and 1936.

When the 1948 Olympics were held in London, GB returned to Olympic hockey. Hence the stage was set for arguably the greatest confrontation in the history of hockey until then. The two nations had not only shared all the previous Olympic titles but had not even lost a single match. For Indians, there was another incentive – their three previous golds were won under the Union Jack. Therefore the dream to see its own flag hoisted in pole position really motivated the team. In the final at the Wembley, India completely outplayed their former colonial masters, winning 4-0.

In 1952, Britain won bronze after defeat against India in the semis and for the next three decades, Britain remained on the fringes of international hockey and was never a serious medal contender. Remarkably, when GB found its renaissance in the 80s, India had gone into the wilderness from which they are yet to emerge.  Since the early 90s, both the nations are struggling to rejoin the higher echelon.

One does not need to be a hockey pundit to see that the Chile Olympic qualifier is a two horse race between these two countries. And the stakes are high – there are no more chances to gain entry to the Beijing Olympics in August.

For India, hockey is not only their national game but also the only discipline which has brought them gold at any Olympics. 2006 would go down as one of the worst years for Indian hockey.  They flopped miserably in all the title events: 11th in the World Cup, 6th in the Commonwealth games, and failure to reach the semis of the Asian games for the first time ever.

However, 2007 saw an effort to reinvigorate Indian hockey. There was a change of guard with Olympian Joaquim Carvalho appointed as the Chief Coach of the national team in March. His first test was the Sultan Azlan Shah Tournament which featured all the top non-European teams. India finished a creditable third. In the Champions’ Challenge, they again finished third. Though these two results were encouraging, it was the least that was expected of them.

When India competed in the Asia Cup in September 2007, they retained their only title. The team displayed the stuff unseen for many years as they pulverised the opposition. India won all the pool games and a jam-packed Chennai stadium saw the most one sided final in the history of the Asia Cup as a rampant Indian team overwhelmed Korea 7-2. All seven were field goals and their tally of 57 goals was also a new tournament record.

Another happening which created the hockey fever in India was the release of the much awaited Bollywood flick ‘Chak de India’, the first ever hockey based Indian movie. The movie starring Shahrukh Khan, the Tom Cruise of Bollywood, was a huge success.

The background of the movie is the 1982 Asian Games final when India lost to arch rivals Pakistan 1-7. To compound the misery further, it was in the capital city of New Delhi with the rest of the nation following on TV. Goal keeper Negi was made the scapegoat. Negi was humiliated by press and public but later became a national hero when the Indian women team unexpectedly won the gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth games, with Negi as the assistant coach.

In a country where Bollywood is a passion, the success of the movie had a profound effect in raising the popularity of the game. There was a 20% increase in the manufacturing of hockey kits in India. The corporate groups, banks and even police had special showings for their workforce as a lesson in discipline, dedication, motivation and team spirit. More importantly, this translated into financial benefits as corporate sector’s interest in Premier Hockey League (PHL) also increased. The prize money is nearly double that of the last year and ESPN has bought the TV rights for next ten years at an annual cost of $4.25 million.

Another major development which should worry the team GB is the appointment of Australian Richard Charlesworth as the technical advisor for Indian hockey. An achiever par excellence, Charlesworth is one of the greatest players the game has ever known, a World Cup winner and Olympic silver medallist. Also a medical doctor, former Member of Parliament and first class cricketer. But his greatest accomplishments have been as the most successful coach in the history of women’s hockey. He guided the hockeyroos to two World Cup victories and an equal number of Olympic golds between 1994 and 2000. Author of two books on coaching, he was also the high performance manager for New Zealand Cricket board before this appointment.

Charlesworth’s appointment is linked to the very survival of hockey as an Olympic sport. Hockey is a discipline threatened by the desire of other sports to be included in the Olympic program. India has not only the best record in Olympics but is also one of only two countries where hockey is the official national sport. But more important factors are India’s population of one billion and its booming economy. All this has led the FIH to a firm belief that to survive as an Olympic sport, hockey has to flourish in India. For this, it is essential that India’s national team excels at the international scene. Apart from the gold at the 1980 Olympics, where almost all the big powers of hockey were absent, India has failed to reach even the semis of the Olympics or the World Cup in last 32 years.

Charlesworth’s brief is as a technical advisor and as such he will be associated with both the men and women teams, senior as well as junior. For the Olympic qualifier, he himself said “I will be as closely involved as my time allows me and as the coaches allow me to be.” Very recently, he expressed the view that the fortunes of Indian hockey can’t be revived overnight and it would need at least five years before the team can be counted among world’s top three outfits.

Chak de, Charlesworth, Champions of Asia all means that Indians can never be more geared for the Olympics qualifiers in Chile in March.

In the other corner, Great Britain is also under great pressure for more than one reason. The women have already qualified, London is host in 2012 and, among the team sports, hockey has received the highest financial backing from the UK Sport over last twelve months. Unlike India, Great Britian/England did not have a good 2007, especially considering that England had attained a very creditable fifth position in the 2006 world cup. In 2007, the biggest disappointment was a disappointing fifth position in the Euro Nations at home which also threw them into the quagmire of the Olympics’ qualifiers. They also did not do well at the end of the year, finishing sixth in the Champions trophy.

Only silver lining looking towards the qualifier is that they did not lose to any of the three Asian sides present there, at the Champions trophy: drawing with Korea and beating Pakistan and Malaysia. However, England lost both its 2007 ties against India which were in the June’s Champions’ Challenge though by the barest of the margins.

Having taken all the above considerations as well as the World rankings into account (England is one rung above India), it is difficult to predict the winner. There is not much to choose from the two and ultimately it will be the performance on the day that would decide the fate of the two.

60 years after that London confrontation, Chile promises a spicy duel.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s