The legend of Dhyan Chand lives on in the hearts of Indian sports fans, even though many generations of Indians have not had the privilege of watching the wizard unveil his magic on the hockey pitch. Many years later, Balbir Singh Sr. was revered across the nation for being part of teams that won gold medals in three successive Olympic Games.
Balbir Singh Sr. was manager of the Indian team that won the 1975 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur after which Aslam Sher Khan, who scored the equaliser against Malaysia in the 1975 World Cup in and Ashok Kumar, who scored the solitary goal in India’s victory over Pakistan in the final, became heroes.
Even as India’s standing in world hockey hit a downward spiral in the modern times, the magical, if sometimes mercurial, Dhanraj Pillay emerged a huge star. It did not seem to matter to the fans that Dhanraj Pillay did not matching silverware in his trophy cabinet, except the 1998 Asian Games gold. The fact that he instilled fear in the opposition ranks was enough for the fans.
Full back Dilip Tirkey took over as the biggest Indian player but now, when India’s fan base does not seem to have eroded despite it still being on a treadmill as far as its presence in world hockey is concerned, it does not have a single player with claims of being an icon, a hero. Not one player seems to have the charisma to stand out in a crowd.
Of course, you can argue that it is good in some ways as no player must be larger than the singular unit that his team can be. But the fact is that nearly all sport in India is personality driven and every sport needs its heroes to make an impact in the collective mindset of the sports loving people of this wonderful nation.
So, how can an Indian hockey player – or players, if you please – be built up as a sporting icon?
I am convinced Team India needs to play more often – and win even more often than it does now – at home so that its players can be seen on TV if they are to ever become icons. It was heartening to see news TV channels speak with the Indian players after each game. If such interactions get more frequent, it can only be good for the evolution of their image.
Of course, one of the basic criteria for a player to be built as a star is for him to perform incredibly well – and over a sustained period of time. And on the basis of what we saw in the FIH World Cup where India played six matches, there are not too many who have it in them to wear the mantle of the super star and draw crowds.
I wish Shivendra Singh had not sat out of two crucial matches after starring in India’s 4-1 victory over Pakistan. He must be the one player closest to being a big draw, with his speedy runs and his poaching skills in the rival circle. Full back Sandeep Singh was the other player but he disappointed with both his defending skills and his inability to convert penalty corners.
I guess we will have to wait for a while before we have a super star emerging from the ranks of the Indian team and until that happens, India hockey will have to settle for being in the penumbra of the sporting firmament behind Indian cricket, English Premier League and other European leagues, Formula One, world golf and the professional tennis tours.
Oh! For another Dhyan Chand or Balbir Singh Sr or Aslam Sher Khan or Ashok Kumar or Dhanraj Pillay. Oh! For another Pargat Singh or Dilip Tirkey.
This piece was written for www.stick2hockey.com