Tokyo 2020 bronze: The fall and rise of Indian hockey 

Tokyo 2020 bronze: The fall and rise of Indian hockey 

Fitness has been given top priority and coaching is structured and that has resulted in a medal in the Olympics

The Indian hockey team rejoices after winning the bronze medal. Credit: PTI Photo

What a day it is for Indian hockey after 41 years. From the pits of not qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics to winning a bronze medal in Tokyo 2020, who would have thought this day was possible? They beat Germany 5-4 in the bronze medal play-off in Tokyo on Thursday. 

The last time the Indian hockey team won an Olympic medal was the gold in a depleted field when Western countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games during the Cold War.

India also won gold medals in 1928 (Amsterdam), 1932 (Los Angeles), 1936 (Berlin), 1948 (London), 1952 (Helsinki), 1956 (Melbourne) and 1964 (Tokyo). The only silver medal was in 1960 in Rome, while the bronze medals were in the 1968 Games in Mexico City and 1972 (Munich, when the terrorist attack happened that targeted Israeli athletes).

We've had brilliant players over the years of the calibre of Dhanraj Pillay, Mukesh Kumar, Baljit Singh Dhillon, Baljit Saini and Dilip Tirkey. So, what exactly led to the decline of the hockey system in India? Well, the structure under the erstwhile Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) under the leadership of KPS Gill and Jothikumaran remained in tatters. The high-handedness of the leadership was just one of the problems of Indian hockey. Some said mockingly that the IHF set-up was being run like a police station. That was its reputation.   

Incidents like the 'Golden Boot', when several senior Indian team members were shown the door after they won the gold in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, further cemented this reputation. The sacked list included Dhanraj Pillay, goalkeeper Ashish Ballal and coach Maharaj Krishan Kaushik, who later wrote the book The Golden Boot

Other problems persisted. There was a North-South divide, the coaching was not structured, the coaches were sacked at regular intervals and not given enough time to settle down with a team. Fitness was not given much thought. There was also the age-old problem of the Indian hockey team conceding several goals in the last minutes of a match. All these problems haunted the Indian team for years. And there seemed to be no solution at all.

A great medal chance was in the Sydney 2000 Olympics when we had to beat Poland. India was leading 1-0 but Poland equalised at the last minute and Pillay was left in tears. That was it. After that, Indian hockey has never looked good... until now.

The change of guard happened when Jothikumaran was caught in a sting operation and accused of receiving money to include a player in the side. After a long court battle, Hockey India (HI) took over under Narinder Batra.

Several illustrious foreign coaches have come and gone - the list includes Ric Charlesworth, Barry Dancer, Roelant Oltmans and Terry Walsh. Not one of them was able to deliver because the system was a mess when Hockey India took over. It took time for things to change. 

Under HI, training facilities improved and there was a huge sponsorship push by the Orissa government.

Fitness was given priority with HI hiring top sports scientists and physical trainers to turn things around. The evidence of the improved fitness regime is there to see on the pitch, with India finishing games strongly.

Graham Reid took over only 18 months before the originally scheduled start of the Olympics (2020). However, the extra year allowed him to impose his ideas on the team better. He has done a stellar job, combining a senior core - Rupinder Pal Singh, Birendra Lakra, PR Sreejesh, Manpreet Singh - with some spirited juniors.

The players also deserve enormous credit. The last year has been tough on all of them, with many of them down with Covid-19 and stuck at the SAI campus. They have delivered when it mattered the most.

That apart, the Indian junior men’s team won the Junior World Cup and there was now a good group of core players to work with. The World League in which India won the bronze was also probably one of the key moments that led to the turnaround.

Now that the women’s team is also going to play the bronze medal match, it will indeed be a red-letter day for Indian hockey if they emerge triumphant as well.