hen you compile the list of the most memorable images of Indian sport, you will have to include this one: Dhanraj Pillai sprinting away with the ball on a counter against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy this Thursday (September 4), out-running two desperate, much younger, defenders, then beating one, a second, a third and, just before he is brought down, reversing the ball, unsighted, to an unmarked Prabhjyot Singh who scored India’s first goal of three in that five-goal classic.
Remember again, it’s the most memorable images we are talking about, not the usual unforgettable moments like winning a trophy or a gold medal.
Images that advertisers and sports marketeers want to preserve forever to sell soap, shampoo, cars, shaving cream, tyres, liquor, insurance, bonds, whatever that brings money into sport, makes its stars millionaires. Images that come without a use-by date.
Dhanraj Pillai Superstar
Here was Pillai, at age 34, too old for any speed game, displaying the attributes Indian hockey is famous for possessing — stickwork and speed — and another two it is notorious for lacking — killer instinct and teamwork.
Dhanraj ran like a sprinter all the 70 minutes, setting up each one of the three goals India scored, each time passing to somebody else, displaying the selflessness that converts great moves into goals.
This one will rank alongside some other great images from recent times. You all have your own list. But not many would rival the Pillai run this Wednesday.
After eight Olympic golds and being anointed the national game, if hockey is the Indian sport’s fairy tale gone wrong, Dhanraj Pillai must be its Cinderella. He made his debut in 1989, the same year as Sachin. For a decade, while Sachin has been one of the world's greatest batsman, Pillai has been one of its greatest hockey forwards.
While Sachin was sometimes trapped in a team where others have rarely matched up to his talent, Pillai has so often been on the losing side because of the gap between him and the rest. However, unlike in cricket, hockey does not so readily recognise individual brilliance.
You can break all of the world’s batting or bowling records and become a great star while your team loses everything. But in the more classical team games like hockey and football, there is no such individual glory that overrides your team’s performance.
If you dropped Sachin after a disastrous series in Australia there will be riots all over India. You drop Saurav and Kolkata will burn. But it was simple enough to drop Pillai even as we were celebrating our first Asiad gold medal in two decades where he had played a stellar role. There wasn’t a whimper.
At a time when the cricketing authorities and the players are locked in a vicious fight over millions, the hockey boys have given the game their heart and soul for 20 (merely twenty, it’s not a misprint) dollars a day.Many of our newspapers gave the victory no more than a brief mention on front pages the following morning, certainly much less than a routine Sachin century. We tried to do justice with a six-column spread on the front-page, including an exclusive interview given by Pillai to our reporter covering the match.
Our kids are not lining up to collect posters of Pillai, Prabhjyot, Dileep Tirkey, Jugraj Singh. Nor are advertisers vying to sign them up to sell soap, shampoo, shaving creams, even gutka and paan masala. In fact, many of you might still not have heard these names.
The tragedy of Indian hockey
It is easy to blame our callousness towards the national game on our cricket-mania. But one of the greatest tragedies of our hockey is that its most glorious phase preceded the era of live television in India.
Our last great championship victory, the Kuala Lumpur World Cup in 1975, was telecast live but then all of India had no more than a few thousand television sets, all black and white, and in the metros.
Hardly anybody, therefore, would have seen the stirring image of Aslam Sher Khan, brought in as a desperate last-minute substitute to take a penalty corner, kissing his amulet before banging in the hit that took India into the final. Today’s generations would only know Aslam, if at all, as an also-ran politician.
But why bother so much about hockey? Cricket is now our national obsession. Cricket has real stars who make us feel good with their performances, even if the Indian cricket team ranks in the bottom half of the world rankings, just above Bangladesh, Kenya and Zimbabwe. What is the big deal about hockey? Who plays hockey, anyway?
That, precisely, is the issue. Indian hockey's decline coincided with the arrival of live television and big sponsorship money. A sporting 'product' was needed to sell those wares, to consume the sponsors' and the advertisers' money, and Indian hockey did not make the grade. It had no Gavaskar, no Kapil Dev.
The hockey establishment too was happy to let things drift. If there was anything they hated more than losing, it was the hockey star. So the moment one reared his head, it was squashed. And the basic principle of modern sport is, no stars, no cash.
It is unlikely that our performance at the Cologne Champions Trophy will change any of that. It is now going to be difficult to break the stranglehold of cricket, international football and Formula One racing on our audiences. But if it happens, the gains will be many.
Game of the underdog and minorities
There is a unique, stirring quality to hockey as a sport. Some day it will find a Ramchandra Guha to figure out its sociology, but, in so many ways, and like many other speed-contact sports, Indian hockey is the game of the underdog and the minorities.
In the Indian subcontinent, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and now even the Ranchi tribals, have excelled in the game. Dileep Tirkey, 25, and a tribal from Orissa, is our national captain, and he did not need the benefit of any reservation from any Mayawati. Most of us are not even conscious of his very humble tribal origins.
Professional sport is the world’s fairest, most level playing field, and thus a social equaliser. Hockey has the potential of becoming an Indian equivalent of European and Latin American football as a socio-economic, ethnic homogeniser in a sporting melting pot.
The football world is full of stars who came from nowhere to lead the big league. David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand are East London boys. El Hadji Diouf (Liverpool), was marauding with a street gang in Senegal when talent-scouts found him.
If cricket cannot do it as effectively as hockey or football, it is because it still is an upper-class game, requiring facilities, a pitch, gloves and pads, and lots of coaching. It doesn’t have the rough-and-ready character of a contact/speed sport that readily absorbs raw talent and lets it flourish.
After all, in which other sports do you see an Oraon or a Munda or a Santhal or a Manipuri becoming the captain of the national team? In hockey, just try to keep them out!
Article courtesy Indian Express, September 7, 2002