If Indian Hockey Wants Column Inches, It Needs to Keep Winning

Resenting cricket its popularity won’t help other sports progress. Media coverage has always been proportional to success, and that isn’t going to change.

It’s been interesting to follow the discussions about the lack of media coverage given to the Indian men’s hockey team ahead of the World Cup that starts in Orissa later today. The likes of Viren Rasquinha, and others, are entirely justified in being dismayed at the lack of column inches, but to shed tears about the coverage is to ignore the cold, hard truth of how the media works.

For the past quarter century, as Indian hockey plumbed the depths – reaching its nadir in 2008, when the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) was suspended, and the team failed to qualify for the Olympics – it has become fashionable in some quarters to blame cricket’s position at the heart of India’s sporting ecosystem for most of hockey’s ills. This twisted narrative somehow suggests that cricket usurped hockey’s space.

Here’s a little exercise for you. Run a simple google search. First, key in “Nokia”. Then, type “Apple”. There was a time two decades ago when Nokia were synonymous with mobile phones. Then, the late Steve Jobs unveiled the game-changing iPhone. There’s a reason why your Google search will show up 25 times as many results for Apple now. Nokia is passe. Few care about ancient history.

If you grew up in India in the early 1980s, you’ll know that hockey got as much coverage as cricket did. Despite India hockey’s decline after the 1975 World Cup win – the last time India were even on the podium in the competition – stalwarts like Zafar Iqbal and Mohammed Shahid were household names in the same way that Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were.

When India agonisingly missed out on a medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, a year after the cricketers had won the World Cup, there was no shortage of column inches in the newspapers. But in the four decades since, cricket has largely been on an upward trajectory. Of course, there have been dips along the way, but in general, the sport’s administrators have expanded its footprint and income while putting competitive teams on the field.

Can we really say the same of Indian hockey? Just look at the catalogue of disasters since then. Rock bottom at the 1986 World Cup, including a 6-0 trouncing by Australia. At the Olympics two years later, they drew with table-topping West Germany but lost to the Soviet Union. The World Cup side in 1990 lost even to France, while the only victories at Barcelona 1992 came against Argentina and Egypt.

The fifth-place finish at the World Cup in 1994, India’s best in the last 40 years, included a victory over England, but the Olympics in Atlanta (1996) saw further infuriating inconsistency. Table-topping Spain were beaten after a loss to Argentina. The World Cup campaigns from 1998 to 2006 were utterly humiliating affairs, involving a 4-1 loss to Canada and a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of the Netherlands.

The Olympics in Athens (2004) saw only one win in the group phase, against South Africa. In an era where KPS Gill and his cronies ran Indian hockey into the ground, the only outlier was the Sydney Olympics in 2000. If you’re charitable, you’ll call it a hard-luck story. If you’re being honest though, you’ll say the team deserved no better. With their destiny in their own hands, they conceded a 69th minute equaliser to Poland to miss out on the semifinals.

Gill’s helmsmanship of Indian hockey reached its logical conclusion in 2008. The legendary Ric Charlesworth was technical advisor to India’s hockey teams at the time, but he wasn’t even on the same continent when India fell short in the qualifier for Beijing held in Chile. The same Charlesworth then led Australia to back-to-back World Cup wins (2010 and 2014), competitions in which India’s only victories came against fast-sinking Pakistan and Malaysia.

The damage done during Gill’s tenure took years to repair. When the team returned to the Olympics in 2012, they shipped 18 goals in five matches, finishing rock bottom. Even in the years since, the annoying habit of switching off in winnable games has cost them dearly. In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, a draw with Canada meant that India had to play red-hot Belgium in the quarterfinal. Argentina, who took third place in the group phase ahead of India, got an easier draw against Spain, and went on to win gold.

And while the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 saw the narrative finally change with a long-awaited medal, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there were crushing defeats against Australia (1-7) and Belgium (2-5, after leading 2-1). If there was renewed excitement about Indian hockey in the aftermath of Tokyo, it was only because the team finally won something.

As the Nokia-Apple analogy shows, media coverage is always skewed in favour of winners. That’s always been the case. In the last 40 years, as hockey has stumbled from disaster to disaster, the cricket team has won two 50-over World Cups, a T20 World Cup, two Champions Trophies (one shared in 2002), and been the best Test team around for half a decade. There have also been individuals like Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, and Ravichandran Ashwin, who could legitimately claim to be the best in the world at what they did.

Any scriptwriter in India would also tell you that we love stories where the hero fights back. And in the case of Indian cricket, big debacles have invariably been followed by celebrated successes. The World Cup disaster of 1992 was a precursor to a thrilling victory at the Hero Cup on home soil in 1993. After the first-round exit at the World Cup in 1999, and the match-fixing scandal of 2000, a new-look team reached the ICC Knockout (as the Champions Trophy was called then) final in 2000. And months after cricketers’ houses were attacked in the wake of limp defeats in the 2007 World Cup, MS Dhoni led an inexperienced side to the inaugural T20 World Cup title.

Yes, greater media coverage would boost Indian hockey. But it’s the classic chicken-and-egg situation. Until and unless you win, the media won’t be bothered. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the beast. The boom in badminton’s popularity in the wake of the medals won by Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, and the upswing in boxing’s popularity after Vijender Singh’s Olympic medal should tell you that much.

Thanks to Neeraj Chopra, many Indians who might otherwise have thought the Diamond League was a jewellery chain now follow the athletics calendar. Over the next few days, Indian hockey needs to show that it’s a premium product like the iPhone. Hockey already has its own Nokia – the once-envied Pakistani hockey system put in place by Air Marshal Nur Khan. On home turf, and in front of a passionate home crowd, India must steer clear of that fate.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *