As Pakistan can prove, field hockey just refuses to die

Pakistan victory over India in Champions Trophy semi-final provides electric spectacle as sport continues to grow in the shadow of cricket, writes Osman Samiuddin.
A dejected India hockey captain Sardar Singh, second right, looks on as Pakistan players celebrate their Champions Trophy semi-final victory after they did not win a single group match. Prakash Singh / AFP
A dejected India hockey captain Sardar Singh, second right, looks on as Pakistan players celebrate their Champions Trophy semi-final victory after they did not win a single group match. Prakash Singh / AFP

This past week, many people have done something that they have not been doing enough of for a long time. They have tuned into field hockey and actively, even aggressively, cared about hockey.

The prism has been the Champions Trophy, which once used to be the grandest hockey tournament on the calendar, the sport’s Champions League.

Restricted to the top eight sides and held annually until 2012, it was always a truer showcasing of hockey’s order of power than the World Cup and Olympics, both held every four years.

Not that it is a non-entity anymore, but its hold on the wider sporting imagination, like hockey’s itself, has slipped. Many days, in fact, it feels like hockey has given up on itself, that it has stopped taking itself seriously.

Take the eccentric format of this year’s tournament in Bhubaneswar in India and the last, which divided eight teams into two pools and then began its knockout stage from the quarter-finals.

That meant the group games had no impact on qualification for the knockouts. Pakistan were the worst side across both groups last week, the only side to lose all their games, hemorrhaging goals throughout. Yet, they reached the final.

Pakistan were actually the story of the tournament, and also maybe the broader story of the gradual dulling of hockey.

But for the gracious pockets of a Pakistani businessman, they would not have even made it to India.

The Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) had no money to send them. The PHF has not paid its players for months. The PHF could not send them to the Commonwealth Games. In front of the PHF, Fifa wins corporate-governance and best-practice awards.

And yet, this is the default Pakistan stance. Just give them a corner to push themselves into, then stand awestruck subsequently as they come storming out. Not only do they refuse to die, they turn dying into an illusion for iridescent living.

This was not, in style, the Pakistan side of legend, a style that elicits the same yearning of Brazil’s jogo bonito.

Like football, hockey has changed too intrinsically.

But they were still the side to watch, because when Pakistan start winning it is not just a triumph over the opponent but one over every tenant of modern sport.

Arrive well-prepared? No thanks. Stay organised? Nope. Maintain discipline? Why? Well-paid? Kidding, right? Strategise? Is that a Transformer?

Sure, in all political correctness, we should condemn their semi-final celebrations after beating India. But it was some guys who took off their shirts and let off a little too much steam, not, you know, an army general who tried to sneak a war into a peace process.

It still made for an electric, unforgettable spectacle. And it briefly galvanised two countries central to hockey’s past and future, that too smack in the middle of cricket commitments for both.

Truth be told, that is the elephant stomping around hockey’s world.

In six of the world’s top 12 countries, cricket swamps hockey. In the other six, football renders it a footnote.

In India and Pakistan, cricket is the sibling that did good, who achieved and left behind the other, without so much as a backwards glance to ask how it was doing.

Hockey looks at cricket askew, jealously regretting what should have been. India and Pakistan had far greater success in hockey than in cricket, yet it has mattered less.

Imran Khan has always reckoned that is because post-colonial equations run deeper in cricket. Like the region, cricket was also ruled over by England. Beating them, for freedom, for cricket, naturally came to mean more. Hockey should have benefited from the relative freedom of those ties but, perhaps, has ended up suffering for it.

Like Pakistan, though, hockey refuses to die. Soon it may flourish, because as with so many sports, the growing gravitational pull of India’s economic strength is sucking it in.

Earlier this year, Star Sports signed an eight-year broadcast deal with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) for its elite tournaments. It is said to be in the region of US$42 million (Dh154.3m).

That is chump change for most sports but roughly an eight-fold increase on hockey’s previous deal. The channel is also investing nearly US$16 million in the Hockey India League, hockey’s IPL.

Hockey needs this money. Just as desperately, it also needs their savvy. Star Sports is raining down cash and sprinkling gold dust on all sports, from kabbadi to football to tennis.

They are investing these with a quality of coverage and a level of marketing and image-building they have never had. That one channel alone is responsible for the futures of so many sports is worrying, of course.

But hockey can worry about that later. Right now, it needs reviving.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

Follow our sports coverage on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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