New hockey laws ended India's rule
Errol D'Cruz, TOI Crest, Feb 27, 2010, 09.14am IST
As the country waits for the World Cup to begin, TOI-Crest traces the fall of Indian hockey from its exalted position. Ironically, it's not so much a decline in playing standards as in the slow dismantling of the game as we knew it that has pushed us to the bottom.
In sport, the basic rules are simple: two teams, or two individuals, pit their skill, guile and temperament against each other; at the end of the contest, one of them emerges victorious while the other goes home with a long face.
The Indian hockey team - once an indomitable force - has suffered a rare predicament though: it has slowly but surely lost to the game itself. As the sport evolved, changing itself to woo the modern world, India stayed rooted in its past and is still paying the price.
Ironically, the slide began when it was right at its peak: In 1975, at Kuala Lumpur. The world was literally at its feet; but it didn't notice, in the euphoria of the World Cup triumph, that the earth was beginning to shift beneath. And rapidly too.
In fact, a year later, the earth itself was replaced by plastic; not too surprisingly, at the Montreal Olympics the very next year, the seven-time gold medalists finished seventh. It was the beginning of the end. The debacle caused a domino effect, at the end of which India finds itself an also-ran in the world order.
But it could all have been very different.
Administrative lethargy (or was it arrogance?) saw the team pulling out of a pre-Olympic tournament a year before the Montreal Games. The objective of the meet: Enable potential Olympic qualifiers to get a feel of the revolutionary surface; incidentally, FIH President Rene Frank came up with the astro-turf idea as worried Games organizers found it difficult to prepare a proper grass pitch in the wake of a severe Canadian winter.
Surjit Singh, a hero of the Kuala Lumpur triumph, was later to liken the entire experience to "playing on hot sand."
It was clear then, that synthetic pitches actually produce a whole new game, warranting a whole new approach and a whole new apparel too.
So in came dress and equipment to match - the good old mulberry shaft slowly gave way to graphite and fiberglass sticks; the goalkeepers donned a Star Wars look - helmet, smock, specialized kickers and lightweight pads.
New-look hockey acquiesced to the demands of modern sport: Speed, stamina and strength replaced sublime skill, and, protective gear such as gum guards and face masks for field players too made their appearance.
The ball changed from the good old seamed leather to a spheroid made of a mixture of rubber and plastic, dimpled to reduce considerably higher velocities than witnessed on natural grass.
For the sleight-of-hand artistes, the new era held ominous forebodings.
But unlike Pakistan, the other Asian exponent, we chose to see 'sinister plots' to neutralize us; our neighbours, though, tempered the game to suit modern trends, with a degree of aplomb.
Interestingly, the saga of changes had started in 1971 itself, during the Barcelona World Cup: the offside rule had been chopped from three players to two; the penalty stroke distance had been reduced from eight yards to seven and the 'sticks' rule (prohibiting players from raising their stick over the shoulder) was also slowly relaxed.
The penalty corner, the object of manifold changes, also reduced defenders from six to five in an attempt to increase goal-scoring. We just couldn't handle all of this.
When the World Cup came to India in 1982, a new set of changes too came along. The hit-in replaced the push-in , the sacred bully-off was abolished and as the Mumbai tournament took place on grass - the last major one on natural surface - one could note that the game was changing its spots at a frenetic pace.
For all our discomfort of playing on plastic, Team India seemed to come to terms with the new order in the early 1980s. The Moscow Olympic gold, admittedly in a denuded field, portrayed us as a quick counter-attacking team. A first ever Champions Trophy medal in 1982 at Amstelveen - a bronze - and second position at the Esanda Invitation tournament in Melbourne later in the year, augured well for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The team even entered as a favourite. In September 1982, however, the next radical change was effected: the outlawing of the hand-stop during the penalty corner. For once, though, the change appeared to suit India. After all, we were novices in the set-piece relative to such sledgehammers as Dutchmen Paul Litjens and Ties Kruize. But, if we lacked strength and stamina for modern hockey, we also exhibited a woeful lack of enterprise. The PC devoid of the hand-stop demanded, at least for starters, the use of smart variations - something we have never come close to excelling at.
Still, the return of Balkishen Singh as coach after nearly 15 years, brought in a refreshing change. He dismantled the archaic pyramid (that used five forwards) and went for a 4-4-2 formation with good results in the run-up to the Los Angeles Games. Like in the Mumbai World Cup, the team failed by a whisker to make the semifinals; it eventually finished fifth but hopes of rekindling the spark of old disappeared at the next World Cup. It's ironical that the worst chapter in Indian hockey was written when we were still in with a chance to excel. The 1986 World Cup in Willesden, England, saw India finish rock bottom, literally and figuratively, after we were left holding the wooden spoon at 12th. Pakistan, who didn't do too much better at No. 11, however, showed that their predicament was only temporary bouncing back to runners-up at their own World Cup in Lahore four years later.
India, on their part, crashed to a lowly 10th, after showing promise at the 1988 Seoul Olympic and sparkled yet again to flatter and deceive at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; Balkishen, who had returned yet again, saw his innovative tactics that succeeded on the European tour fail to work magic at the Games. Post-Barcelona , the rule-makers who kept the pot boiling nicely, were about to alter hockey forever with two more radical changes - the rolling substitution rule to place the emphasis on skill rather than stamina and the modified obstruction rule that allowed restricted turning by a player in possession of the ball. The goal: a more flowing game. We have failed abjectly, to work either to our advantage, even though the changes seemed to favour us. Instead, we've found ourselves backpedalling to contain rampaging Australia, Germany and the Netherlands - even in hot, humid conditions - thanks to a relentless surge of substitutes. Meanwhile, a change to rein in the one-man demolition squads, the penalty corner specialists, boomeranged on the rule-makers.
They first induced goalkeepers to stay on their feet, instead of going down prostrate to block shots (the 18-inch high backboards indicating the permissible height of the direct hit at goal); then, in the hope of diluting the potency of the penalty corner, they stipulated that the ball be halted out of the circle after it's injected into play.
Together, the two rules gave birth to the drag flick after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; and in its wake, came the assassins Floris Jan Bovelander and Taco van den Honert, Dutchmen both.
While Pakistan produced the greatest, in the person of Sohail Abbas, India had to wait till the new millennium for a full-time drag-flicker - Jugraj Singh.
Cedric D'Souza , the best thinking coach we've had, inspired an upsurge in fortunes at the 1994 World Cup in Sydney. Fifth position, not thought of very highly in days gone by, was relished by India. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, two quirks - a defeat by old nemesis Argentina in the opening match and quirky umpiring in the drawn game against Germany - led to a worst ever eighth place at the Games. Cedric though had come closest to replicating the methods used by the West.
He emphasized the need to use individual skills only beyond the attacking '25' and stressed the need to part with the ball (the failure of which is our perennial malady) and had the perfect models in the iconic Dhanraj Pillay and the savvy Jude Felix.
His methods were greeted with disdain by a system resistant to change. Sadly, Cedric faded into oblivion about the time hockey was poised for its most profound change ever.
Offside, partially abolished in 1987, was banished forever immediately after the 1996 Olympics. If artificial turf brought in a rash of changes to the game, this change transformed the game even more.
Gone was the creative midfield and the steady build up in attack. Also gone was the through ball and the chase down the middle. In came the poachers and deflections into goal.
Defenders, they joke, need eyes at the back of the head as marauders steal their way well beyond enemy lines, ready to make the kill. Elsewhere on the pitch, the crunch to buy and deny space and the ability to retackle after losing possession has placed the onus on concentration and focus for all of 70 minutes.
The aspect of retaining focus has seen us in poor light and a long and dismaying history of letting in late goals, commencing from conceding an equalizer against Poland - and a place in the semifinals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics - continues unabated.
After the rule changes quietened for a while, the quaint self pass (an option at the free hit when a player gets on with the game without passing) came into being late last year. Still in its infancy, it promises to promote skill which Indians supposedly possess in copious quantity.
The kill, though, has been long in coming... and is still awaited. Or maybe, we will see some changes that will allow India to smile again, if not regain lost glory.
HOCKEY'S CLIMATE CHANGE
THE NO OFF-SIDE RULE (1996)
With no restriction on movement of players, the game changed radically. It has meant more goals, fewer stoppages and a reduced burden on the umpires. A less creative midfield is the flip side.
NO HAND-STOP IN PENALTY CORNERS (1982)
The objective was to make penalty corners less lethal. It hasn't happened but at least new variations have emerged. India haven't learnt any new trick.
PAVING WAY FOR DRAG FLICK (1992)
Under the new rule, the PC ball had to be stopped outside the circle. The hitter got around this 'disadvantage' by dragging and flicking the ball goalwards.
ROLLING SUBSTITUTION (1992)
Aiming to place emphasis on skill and reduce the focus on fitness, the rolling substitution has been a popular change manifesting itself in a relentless pace of play.
MODIFIED OBSTRUCTION RULE (1992)
The player was now allowed to shield the ball from the opponent. The only catch was that he had to be on the move. There were fears that it would lead to dangerous play but it eventually made the sport cleaner and significantly reduced stoppages too
PARTIAL NO OFF-SIDE RULE (1987)
Players could be off-side up to the 25-yard line but not beyond. Met with partial success and encouraged views to abolish it altogether.
PERMITTING THE HIT-IN FROM SIDELINES (1981)
Made the push-in less stringent and gave players the option to hit the ball into play. It sped up the game and made hit-ins deep into the attacking half more penetrative than the push-in .
SELF-PASS AS OPTION TO FREE-HIT (2009)
An option to the free-hit that allows a player to resume play without passing to a teammate with plenty of creative options as the player is free to dribble the ball before deciding on his next action. This new rule could benefit India.
END TO THE BULLY-OFF AT START (1981)
The demise of the romantic start to a hockey match surprisingly didn't evoke too much mourning. The centre-pass (akin to the kick-off in football) now starts a game. However, a scaled-down bully-off (one tap on the opponent's stick before attempting to gain possession) makes a very rare appearance for some infringements.
PENALTY STROKE: FROM 8 YARDS TO 7 (1975)
The main objective was to produce more goals. But it also ensured that fouls in the D were greatly reduced.
It was clear then, that synthetic pitches actually produce a whole new game, warranting a whole new approach and a whole new apparel too
New-look hockey acquiesced to the demands of modern sport: Speed, stamina and strength replaced sublime skill
While we chose to see 'sinister plots' to neutralize us, Pakistan tempered the game to suit modern trends