Hockey gets more stick

There is a threat to World Cup hopes as India's players find themselves embroiled in a Bollywood blockbuster.

Prabhjot Singh, on the ground, allegedly confirmed that a bone of contention for the Indian hockey team was the invitation of a player to take part in a charity event despite not being in the squad.
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The Indian hockey team continue to be in the news for all the wrong reasons. Just as they were gearing up quietly for the forthcoming World Cup - the media was barred from training sessions - a controversy arose over their alleged demand for Rs50million (Dh4m) to participate in a glamorous charity event that would include Bollywood actors.

The players refuted the claims and threatened to take action against the organisers who painted a picture of them looking greedy. Hockey players demanding Rs50m is beyond belief considering they are not superstars. But there is a possibility that they may have demanded a sizeable amount, considering Bollywood presence would not have come cheap despite it being a charity event. Here is what the Stick2Hockey website reported on the incident: "The bone of contention seemed to be money and a plane ticket involving a player who was not part of the squad.

"The organisers sent out 21 tickets, whereas the squad comprised of 22 players who were part of the camp. "Later on, the 22nd player was picked up by the organisers but the player in question was not part of the camp and the rest objected to it. This development was later confirmed to us by [the Indian player] Prabhjot Singh." It is fair to question the decision of the players to get into something like this when the two-week FIH World Cup starts on Sunday. It is not to say that extra effort in training and staying focused would translate to a World Cup win, but at least it would help in making them better prepared for a stiff challenge.

Refusal to get involved in a charity event would have hit the pocket, but it would have sent out the right signal to everyone - that India mean business at the World Cup. The enormity of preparing for an international competition of this importance at home can never be underestimated, and although the nation should not be shocked if India do not get near the final stages, a carefree attitude would kill Indian hockey.

Playing at home has to be an advantage in any sport and the Indian team, captained by Rajpal Singh, need to take factor that in. It was unfortunate to read the story about the coach Jose Manuel Brasa arguing with the establishment over the choice of captain. No leader would want to be undermined, but it is not something that has not happened before and the show must go on. Recently I met a hockey fan, who is close to the team, and he was most upset when I brought up the issue of a pay dispute between the players and the board last month.

"Please get one thing clear. The players were not demanding cash. What they wanted was a proper pay structure which would not only benefit them, but the future generation as well," he said. I realised I had touched a raw nerve. No doubt, the players were brave to take on the establishment for a better pay deal; outrageous enough to stop training until demands were met; wise and visionary in pressing for a graded contract system.

But while that has yet to come to fruition, all demands should be on hold for the moment because now is the time to deliver. The vagaries of sport do not guarantee results, but the least India can do is give grit a good name. Unlike cricket, there will not be unreasonable expectations from the fans, so Brasa would do well to encourage flair so that the sport in India will benefit. Hockey is still popular and that's why it is India's national sport (yes, not cricket) but it needs a larger fan base and the number of children who want to play the sport must increase.

It is not easy for players to forget their battles with the establishment when they take to the turf, but it is possible - with or without the help of a psychologist. Success has been achieved in a back-to-the-wall situation. Indian cricketers have done this time and again. I remember a source in the cricket team's dressing room telling me that the team had a "go-to-hell" line for each of their critics when they beat Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup match at Centurion.

It was a great comeback by Sourav Ganguly's team who were ridiculed after their loss to Australia at the same ground earlier in the tournament. Forget the humiliation from the media, some of the players' homes were stoned. Yet India got back at their detractors through performance. From no-hopers, they eventually made it to the final. India's hockey players ought to follow their cricket counterparts.

The Indian Olympic Association chief Suresh Kalmadi, whose powers of persuasion came to the fore in the "Players versus Hockey India" battle, has gone on record to say that the players would never face any form of victimisation for their decision to take on the administration. In that case, the players should be itching to set foot on the astro-turf and play their natural game. As coaches would say, the best results emerge if players do what comes naturally.

India will never match the other teams when it comes to the power game, but they can do incredible things with their skills and no sportsman can be successful if he does not out-think his opponent. There will be winners and losers at the World Cup in New Delhi, but two aspects will contribute greatly to the tournament's success - an incident-free event and the nature of play. Power, speed, precision, oriental skills - the tournament must see it all.

Clayton Murzello is Group Sports Editor of Midday, an Indian newspaper