Skip to main content
Publish date:

REIGN ON THE WANE SINCE THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, THE SPORT HAS BELONGED TO THE SIKHS AND THE HINDUS, BUT THE REST OF THE WORLD IS CATCHING UP

Author:

Sports in India are a microcosm of life and death. Or so it
seems two days after the nation's cricket team has beaten
Pakistan in a 1996 World Cup quarterfinal. "This morning's Hindi
papers say a student in Pakistan shot his television after the
match," says Nitin Kohli, 25, while driving through the city of
Jalandhar. "Then he shot himself." The victory puts India in a
semifinal in Calcutta against Sri Lanka, a game India will
forfeit in mid-match when the home fans, upset that their side
is trailing, set fire to the stadium. Indian suicides will duly
follow.

Jalandhar is on the Grand Trunk Road, the millennia-old trade
route that Rudyard Kipling called the "river of life." But the
real river of life in sports-crazed India is a road called the
Basti Nau, an extraordinary milelong thoroughfare flanked on
both sides exclusively by sporting-goods stores, dozens and
dozens of them spilling soccer balls and cricket bats and boxing
gloves into the chaotic, donkey-cart-choked roadway.

Just off the Basti Nau, Kohli's family manufactures field hockey
sticks. Field hockey is India's national sport, and this city of
50,000 is home to 127 stick manufacturers. Jalandhar is located
in the northern part of the state of Punjab, the heart of hockey
in India.

Kohli, who's showing a visiting reporter around, drives out of
the city and eventually pulls up at his destination, the
neighboring village of Sansarpur. Dusk and dust fall on a dirt
hockey pitch. In the last 64 years this village of 3,000 has
sent 25 field hockey players to the Summer Games, which must be
a per capita Olympic record. Kohli and the reporter are greeted
by a slight, turbaned 68-year-old who played in four Olympics
from 1952 to 1964. Udham Singh is a national hero. He is happy
to recount his hamlet's history.

"The British army brought hockey here at the turn of the
century, during the Raj," he says in the practiced tones of a
tour-bus driver. "The village's first Olympian was Colonel
Gurmit Singh, in 1932."

Even though India had won the gold medal in field hockey at the
1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the late Colonel Singh nearly missed
the '32 Games because the hockey team had no money for the trip
to Los Angeles. An influential Indian journalist was dispatched
to visit Mohandas K. Gandhi. The newspaperman implored the great
spiritual leader to appeal to the public for funds for the
hockey squad. Replied the Mahatma: "What is hockey?"

Soon all of India would know. Between 1928 and 1964, the country
won seven of the eight men's Olympic gold medals in field
hockey. It has won eight in all, the last coming in 1980.

The sport lay fallow in India throughout the terrorism-plagued
1980s, when radical Sikh separatists in Punjab carried out
sectarian violence, acts that culminated in the 1984
assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh
bodyguards. The man credited with getting rid of terrorism in
troubled Punjab--a largely Sikh state in predominantly Hindu
India and abutting Muslim Pakistan--is K.P.S. Gill, who was the
state's daunting chief of police from 1988 until last year. It
is a measure of field hockey's importance that Gill now heads
the sport's national federation.

Gill's position also reflects the traditional link in Punjab
between field hockey and law enforcement. Many prominent Punjabi
policemen are former hockey stars who joined the force after
playing for Punjab Police, a club team sponsored by the
department. Punjab Police is perhaps the best of India's 3,700
field hockey teams, which are funded by companies and
governmental bodies.

The new chief of police in Punjab is Surinder Singh Sodhi, who
was the second-leading scorer in the '80 Olympics. Sodhi, 39, is
a giant man with the strength and, like all Sikhs, the hair of
Samson. Affixed to the garden gate of his home is a brass plate
inscribed with the Olympic rings and the words olympia nest,
Sodhi's name for his two-story brick residence, which houses
some 2,000 medals, magazine covers and other mementos of his
career. Among these is a framed photograph of Sodhi with Indira
Gandhi. "Win," says Sodhi, his flowing hair tucked beneath a
mustard-colored turban, "and of course you will get the glory."

For the first time in nearly two decades, Indian hockey players
may get just that. The team made curry of World Cup-holder
Pakistan last Christmas Day in Madras, 5-2. It was an epochal
victory in front of a frenzied crowd and perhaps is a portent
for Atlanta. "In India now we have hope," says Udham Singh. "It
will take time. But our boys are coming up again."

The decline of Indian hockey echoed that of the foreign empire
that brought the game to the subcontinent. "People say, 'You are
the best, you are the best,' all those years, and suddenly you
see the world passing you by," says Cedric D'Souza, who was
appointed coach of the national team in 1994. "In the last
several years the team has been seen as untactical, devoid of
strategy, unprofessional and disjointed."

It didn't help that in 1976 the rug was pulled out from under
India. Or rather, the rug was put under India. Beginning with
the Montreal Games, Olympic field hockey has been played
exclusively on artificial turf. In a land where cows are
sacred, fake grass is anathema.

"AstroTurf is a very costly affair," notes Ajit Pal Singh, a
48-year-old Sansarpur native who played in three Olympics (1968,
'72 and '76) and who now owns a Delhi filling station, the
Centre Half, named for his field position. "We are a very large
country but can afford only 12 or so AstroTurf fields. A country
like Holland is very small but has many such fields."

Not only did artificial turf replace real sod, but also plastic
balls replaced leather ones. A slow, analytical game gave way to
one of nonstop, true-hop action. For India it was like starting
over, with all nations even in field hockey. "Our ex-players are
thought of as world-beaters," says Pargat Singh, the captain of
the '96 Olympic team. "But nowadays you can lose to Belarus or
to Belgium--to teams that didn't even play hockey then."

As if to further highlight India's plight, birds of prey circled
overhead in the gloaming while Singh spoke after practice on the
national team's new artificial-turf pitch in Madras. On this
evening most of the players were gathered around radios,
listening to the India-Pakistan World Cup cricket quarterfinal.
That non-Olympic sport has indisputably passed hockey as India's
national passion.

"Cricket players are very high [in popularity]," says Dhanraj
Pillai, the national hockey team's charismatic ponytailed
striker and biggest star. "We are very low. Financially, they
are very good. We are not. But if we win a gold medal"--his eyes
light up at the thought--"suddenly people will look after Indian
hockey players."

Pillai, 26, is employed by the Mahindra jeep company to play for
its team and the national squad. When his athletic career is
over, he will be given a job in the company. His equivalent on
the Indian cricket team, superstar batsman Sachin Tendulkar, is
a 23-year-old millionaire. Hand-painted Pepsi billboards with
Tendulkar's beaming face are everywhere in India, like portraits
of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

"If Pillai walks down the street, maybe half the people will
recognize him," says Kohli, the hockey-stick maker. "Whereas
Tendulkar cannot walk down the street, he is so famous. But if
the hockey team comes back from Atlanta with any medal at all,
they will get two times the glory of the cricketers. Because
hockey is still the national sport of India."

Nevertheless, this is not your father's Oldsmobile. Or Mahindra,
for that matter. D'Souza, 40, employs a team psychologist,
speaks of "fear psychosis" and takes what he calls a "new-school
approach" to hockey. A charming man of energy and enthusiasm--he
has persuaded the bulk of Atlanta's sizable Indian community to
get involved in the festivities surrounding the Olympic hockey
tournament--D'Souza encourages his players to get out of their
rooms at international competitions and meet players from other
nations, something they never did before. "Otherwise," the coach
says, "life is too short."

It has been said that D'Souza's team has taken brotherhood too
far. In January's Olympic qualifying tournament in Barcelona,
after India had assured itself a trip to Atlanta, it played a
last, miserable 0-0 match against Malaysia. The tie allowed the
Malaysians to qualify for the Olympics at Canada's expense, and
afterward Canadian coach Shiaz Virje, born in Kenya of Indian
parents, alleged that six Indian players had conspired with
Malaysia to fix the match. After an investigation the
International Hockey Federation denied the protest "in the
absence of hard evidence"--a ruling that Canadian officials
described as "interpretive"--allowing suspicions to linger.

"We are confident that the Canadians are telling lies," says
Mukesh Kumar, a striker on the Indian team. "Still, people ask,
'Did you do it or not?'"

D'Souza answers the question as if under oath. "No coach worth
his salt would let that happen, and I would not let that happen
as a person. My conscience is clear."

He can now attend to the task of restoring his nation's hockey
glory. In at least one place, it has never really left.
SANSARPUR HOCKEY ASSOCIATION, reads the plaque in a small
tearoom off the village pitch. YOU HAVE DONE US PROUD. Beneath
the legend is a list of Sansarpur's Olympians, who span more
than half a century.

Outside, children as young as six practice on the pitch before
school, hoping that one day their names will be hand-painted on
the plaque. Their progress is assessed by three village
elders--the youngest 80, the oldest 96--taking their morning
constitutional.

Gajjat Singh is the youngest of this trio. His son Blbi played
on India's bronze-medal-winning team at the 1968 Olympics in
Mexico City. Singh recalls that when British troops brought
hockey to Sansarpur at the beginning of this century, "there was
no curve in the hockey stick. It was just straight." He gestures
to the canes with which he and his companions walk. "Like these.
We played with a homemade cotton ball. At first we were not
allowed to play on the pitch, because we were not very good.
Then we became better than the soldiers." From that group
Colonel Singh emerged as an Olympian in '32, and he inspired the
next generation of Olympians, who in turn inspired the next.

One of those Olympians from Sansarpur, Ajit Pal Singh, speaks in
the office of his gas station. Just outside the door his
attendants cheer the Indian cricketers playing on a small
black-and-white television. Singh marvels at sport's power to
move people. Last year British television interviewed him for a
piece on Sansarpur. It has since aired around the world.

"My youngest brother lives in Toronto," he says. "He turned on
the TV one night and suddenly saw Sansarpur. He could not
believe he was seeing it, this small village where we come from."

He should not have been surprised, for everything moves in
cycles. It is a common tenet of Sikhism and Hinduism, and
perhaps now of Indian field hockey: Death gives way to rebirth.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY [Field hockey player in game during rain]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY THE GRASS MAY BE GREENER NOW THAT IT'S ARTIFICIAL, BUT ADJUSTING TO IT HAS BEEN BUMPY FOR INDIA, EVEN WITH HIGH-FLYING STARS SUCH AS DILIP KUMAR TIRKEY [Dilip Kumar Tirkey and opponent colliding during game]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY STICK MAKING IS AN HONORED CRAFT IN THE TOWN OF JALANDHAR, WHERE 127 MANUFACTURERS TRY TO CARVE OUT A NICHE FOR THEMSELVES [Indian man making field hockey stick; man carrying newly-carved field hockey sticks]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY THE PITCHES OF SANSARPUR HAVE BEEN THE PERFECT PLACE TO CATCH A GLIMPSE OF OLYMPIANS, CURRENT AND FUTURE [Members of Indian field hockey team listening to coach; boys playing field hockey]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY ON A SANSARPUR STREET, THOSE WHO WALK SOFTLY AND THOSE WHO MERELY HANG OUT ALL CARRY BIG STICKS [Man with cane walking near youths with field hockey sticks]