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Indian players celebrate after defeating Germany 5-4 in the men's field hockey bronze medal match, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, on August 5, 2021. Image Credit: PTI

Why is India celebrating a hockey bronze? It sure is not gold or silver, but even bronze is a huge achievement. Especially in Olympics. More so in hockey. That too after beating Germany, a modern-day hockey powerhouse. So, why not celebrate?

Every Indian understands the weight of achievement. If you have lived long enough to watch India slide from the hockey pinnacle to depths of despair, you would know what the bronze at Tokyo 2020 means.

An Olympic medal is reason enough to rejoice. For Indians, an Olympic medal in hockey after 41 years is a dream come true. Eight-time Olympic gold medallists in hockey, India’s last win was in 1980. But the Moscow Olympics always had an asterisk and a footnote since most Western nations boycotted the Summer Games.

The hockey heavyweights gave Moscow a miss. But for Indians, the Vasudevan Bhaskaran-led team’s win remained very dear. Every Indian who listened to the live radio commentary of the Olympic final had their heart in the mouth as the Spaniards searched for an equaliser in the dying minutes of the game with incessant attacks.

Dhyan Chand and synthetic pitches

An Olympic gold, it was. Ignore the people who remind us of the boycott. That was precious. Because it ended a 16-year drought after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In the intervening years, India had to settle for bronze at two Olympiads and endured the humiliation of seventh place in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Who would have thought that India will have to wait for 41 more years for another Olympic medal? No, not the Indian hockey fans. They never gave up. Every time India played a tournament, they were sure of winning. Even repeated failures never dimmed their enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm was not driven by logic or reason. It was fuelled by hope. They always harked back to the days of Dhyan Chand, the hockey wizard who mesmerised Adolph Hitler and the world at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Blamed synthetic pitches for their fall. Called it a conspiracy to undermine their supremacy.

True, India and Pakistan reigned supreme when field hockey was played on grass pitches. Their dribbling and trapping skills on uneven surfaces dumbfounded the rest of the world. But the arrival of synthetic surfaces in the form of astroturf and poly grass levelled the playing field. Dribbling and trapping became easy as there was no bad bounce.

The synthetic surface changed the game. But the Indians didn’t adapt. While European nations like Germany and the Netherlands brought football tactics to hockey, Indians refused to change. The 5-3-2 formation that worked so well on grass pitches became an anachronism on synthetic surfaces.

India continued to produce skilful players, but the team was tactically inadequate. Pathetic coaching was the problem. Coaches had to be Olympians, the Indian Hockey Federation believed. Superb players on grass were clueless as coaches on the demands of modern hockey. India refused to hire foreign coaches believing that “this is our game, and we know better”.

Even coaches like P.A. Raphael of the Sports Authority of India, who blended European aspects into the Indian game, were ignored. Cedric D’Souza was the first coach to introduce modern elements in Indian hockey. I watched his team, led by Jude Felix, in action during the 1994 World Cup in Sydney.

Felix and Dhanraj Pillay were playing in the German and French leagues as professionals, and that helped. Still, many elements like the running style of players, movement off the ball, switching play from flanks, counter attacks, tactical systems all remained foreign to Indian hockey.

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Indian players pose after beating Germany 5-4 in the men's field hockey bronze medal match, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, on August 5, 2021. Image Credit: PTI

The IHF realised the shortcomings of Indian coaches and started hiring foreign trainers. Australian great Ric Charlesworth was tapped as technical director. Terry Walsh and Michael Nobbs from Australia and legendary Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans managed Indian teams but were hampered by the unprofessional system where favouritism is rife. All signs of a revival turned out to be mirages until the Tokyo Olympics.

I had reported on hockey for 10 years in the eighties and nineties. Like any hardened hockey fan, I never lost hope. For, I was always reminded of the late German hockey coach Horst Wein’s words. In his book The Science of Hockey, Wein had said if India and Pakistan grasp the elements of the European game, they would be unbeatable. That never happened. Hockey in India remained bedevilled by corruption and nepotism like any other sport.

The bronze in Tokyo proves that India still is a fount of hockey talent. Bronze it may be, but it has dared us to dream. So let us celebrate.