If India's hockey rulers believe the players were blackmailing them by going on strike a few weeks before the World Cup in New Delhi, they were right. Where they were wrong was by saying the players had no right to take such action. India's top players have decided to boycott a World Cup preparatory camp over a payment dispute while the game's administrators are threatening to suspend those involved in the strike.
For years, sports administrators have had everything their own way because the players were afraid to come out and express themselves. But times have changed. It is a questioning era. The players are asking why they cannot have the best facilities, why they are not adequately rewarded for their skill, effort and performance? But administrators have chosen to ignore these concerns. The president of Hockey India, AK Mattoo, made himself look silly when he questioned the players' decision to stay away from the training at the camp in Pune.
"They are national players, they cannot threaten us," he said. Mr President, what were you doing when the players were tolerant of your association's autocratic ways and they continued to stay silent? Why did you not stop to think about the betterment of those same "national players" who, apart from being deprived of their earnings, were giving poor facilities at their preparatory camps? When they needed cereals for breakfast, they were given oily snacks. When they needed to have healthy chunks of chicken for dinner, they were given chicken with feathers. When they needed just a little more to stay financially satisfied, you left their purses empty and light.
All sportsmen are proud to represent their country, but whenever I meet a hockey personality they made me believe they had that little extra bit of pride embodied in their systems. On Monday, the national coach, Jose Brasa, said that even road sweepers were better paid than hockey players. That is a huge statement coming from someone who knows the players well and who is just getting a feel of how things are run in Indian sport.
Callous officialdom has not surprised me since I read a sordid story about what a football official said in reaction to a strike by groundsmen, who were demanding an improvement in their pay structure after their local grocer refused to give them any more food grains on credit. "Go and eat grass then," the administrator said. The hockey blow-up has taken place despite the team having a sponsor. There were some problems with the deal but the fact is that dues were paid.
Why then do the players still suffer? Some questions in Indian sports cannot be answered. Hockey has been treated shoddily but the game is still close to every Indian's heart. When the Indians did not qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years, the cricket legend, Sachin Tendulkar, released a message to encourage the players to put the disappointment behind them and move on. When Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan heard about the latest protest, he supported the players on Twitter, the social networking site. Of course, Shah Rukh has another reason to be vocal about the sport's problems.
A few years ago he acted as a hockey coach in Chak De India, a movie which was a huge box-office success and also brought youth closer to the game. On Monday, he played the balancing act better when he said: "Everyone has to take a stand in the way they feel but I hope the issue gets resolved. "It's not nice that there is a strike and it's not nice either if players go out to play when they are actually unhappy and unattended to in some matters of economics. I hope it gets resolved soon."
How about a Save Indian Sports association comprising of well-known sports people and sports lovers to act as watchdogs to the establishment? The primary aim of this body would not be to act as a trade union, but a facilitator of good deeds to improve the lot of struggling sports practitioners. Dhanraj Pillay said that the team was not prepared for the World Cup because of decisions taken by Hockey India. With due respect to India's most famous hockey player after the great era ended in the 1980s, that was always going to be the case.
It will be a while before India get their hands on a World Cup trophy again (the last one came in 1975). Then Indian hockey was poor on the finance front; today it is in a better situation with sponsorship coming in, but it is fractured in terms of spirit. It would be sad to see hockey run by governmental forces. Sports institutions need politicians at the top, but they can do without them in daily administration. And they can certainly do without the huge amounts of red tape.
Hockey has an acute shortage of optimists and it is a bad time to be philosophical, but sport teaches you to pick yourself up and do battle again. The last ball is yet to be hit in this match. What is needed is a melodramatic end. Clayton Murzello is the Group Sports Editor of the Indian newspaper Midday firstname.lastname@example.org