Even as the Hockey World Cup is taking place in Rourkela and Bhubaneswar, Odisha, the continued lack of representation from Delhi in the Indian team, comes as a dampener for Capital’s sports afficionados.
Those who have followed hockey in Delhi and are aware of the huge turnout atinternational and local matches at the National Stadium and Shivaji Stadium, often mention the decline in hockey talent in the national capital.
Delhi’s hockey culture was responsible for shaping careers of several promising players, who later represented the country in competitions including the Olympic Games.
Olympian Vineet Kumar, late MK Kaushik, who was member of the 1980 Moscow gold medal winning team and Harendra Singh, former international and head coach of the Indian hockey team, were some of those who emerged from Delhi.
But after Harendra, who was part of the 1990 Asian Games silver-winning Indian team, there has been no representative from Delhi in the India team.
Recalling the good days
Olympian Harbinder Singh, who has spent most of his life in Delhi but represented Railways at domestic level, says schools and clubs were responsible for the bustling hockey scene in the Capital for over two decades in early 1970s.
“There were so many hockey clubs that I can’t even recall the names now,” saidHarbinder, a member of the Indian men’s hockey team that won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
“There would be fierce competition even for a single position in the club team during those days.”
In an era when hockey was played on grassy grounds in India, the iconic Shivaji Stadium in the heart of the Capital was the hub of hockey activity. Later, National Stadium was also a popular destination for hockey in Delhi.
Shivaji Stadium wasn’t a concrete structure that we see these days, recalls Harbinder.
The sprawling stadium comprised two grassy grounds and attracted even the general public visiting Connaught Place.
“Sports enthusiasts and the general public often enjoyed hockey as there were year-round hockey competitions at the Shivaji Stadium,” revealed Harbinder, who was member of India’s Olympic Games medal-winning teams from 1964 to 1972.
According to Harbinder Singh, the competitive three-month long Delhi hockey league was fiercely contested and was a good platform to polish skills.
“There were several hockey tournaments around the year in the Capital that attracted big teams and top players. Those were the days when there was just one senior-level competition. There was cut -throat competition to earn a place in the local team,” said Harbinder, who joined Railways in early 1960s.
The competitive environment, in fact, shaped the destiny of Olympian Vineet Kumar.
“I took up hockey by chance during my days at Dayal Singh College in the early 1970s, got passionately involved and eventually represented India at the world level,” says Vineet Kumar.
He recalls that on one occasion, only 10 players reported to play for the Dayal Singh College hockey team.
Kumar was asked to join the team as the 11th member.
“I bought a new hockey stick, borrowed shorts and started playing. Initially, I played forward but was later advised by senior players to play full back,” added Kumar, who is senior vice-president of Delhi Hockey.
According to Kumar, the National Stadium was often crowded even during the practice sessions in the afternoon.
“There were three or four sessions of 90 minutes of hockey every day. And, it was first come first serve for all the players irrespective of their talent or position. Sometimes the best player had to sit out if he was late,” Kumar said.
Kumar missed the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games due to an injury.
“I hurt my ankle and missed the Moscow Olympic Games in which India won gold,” he recalled.
However, he went on to represent India at the 1984 Olympic Games as well as the 1982 and 1986 Asian Games.
Hockey in schools
There would be more than 20 Delhi school teams in local tournaments, says Sri Prakash, a former national level player and Sports Authority of India (SAI) hockey coach.
“Thanks to the support of school authorities, several local hockey clubs would get to usethe school facilities. The hockey activities within the school campus also attracted students to take up the game,” addedSri Prakash.
According to the SAI coach, SS Khalsa School in Lajpat Nagar was a hub of hockey activities.
“The SS Khalsa School team had emerged champions of the Nehru Hockey Junior Tournament. Sarojini Nagar was also a popular hockey playing area. There was hockey in rural areas. That was between 1975 to 1980,” Sri Prakash said of the good old days of hockey in the Capital.
Inspired by India’s triumph at the Hockey World Cup in Malaysia in 1975, Sri Prakash took up hockey and went on to represent Delhi at the junior nationals. Later he became a coach and joined SAI.
“Every second person in the area around Shivaji Hockey Stadium was associated with hockey. Delhi Hockey League would runsuccessfully for more than two months. It was mandatory for each club affiliated with the state unit to play in the league. The clubs that didn’t field the team were disaffiliated,” Sri Prakash added.
Promising school players would go on to join the college hockey team. The outstanding players would join the departments.
“There were a large number of department teams like RBI, MTNL and Delhi Police,” Sri Prakash said.
Kumar said that schools and colleges played a key role in developing the ecosystem.
“There was good competitive hockey at school level from October to March. There were good opportunities under sports quota in the departments too. There were at least 25 to 30 clubs. There was an A and B division league in the Capital in the early 1970s to 1980s,” Kumar recalled.
Hawa Singh, a retired physical education teacher in Delhi, claims that more than 300 students from Delhi have got jobs via sports quota in various departments due to them playing hockey.
“Getting jobs via sports quota was possible as the players exhibited a good brand of hockey,” Singh explained.
The slide down
The last time a Delhi school team emerged champions in a hockey tournament held at Shivaji Stadium was way back in 1997.
“The Nehru hockey tournament committee would issue tickets from quarter-finals onwards. Such was the passion for the local hockey tournaments in Delhi. Shivaji Stadium was generally houseful as top players represented their respective teams. Those, who couldn’t get tickets, climbed nearby trees to witness the match,” Sri Prakash said.
The playing facilities received a massive faceliftduring the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi. Artificial turf was laid at the National Stadium. In early 1990s, a synthetic turf was also laid at the iconic Shivaji Stadium.
In the early 1980s, more than 1,000 hockey players were active.
In 2023, one can countthe players on finger-tips.
“These days therewould be only 300 to 400 players, including girls, who come to play despite better facilities,” adds Sri Prakash.
Patronage from school principals declined and that also contributed to the downfall of hockey in the Capital.
“It’s the collective effort of the head of the institution, physical education or games teacher that propels a sport.Teachers of academic subjects too have to come forward to support the hockey playing students,” he added.
“The school principals didn’t completely support sports activities. Lack of support from heads of the schools mainly led to the downfall of hockey at the grassroots level,” reasonedHawa Singh, a retired physical education teacher of the Union Academy School.
According to Kumar, hockey at school level started drying upeven in the late 1990s.
“It broke the chain. Fewer players played hockey at college. Subsequently, the sports quota jobs for hockey discipline also decreased,” addedKumar.
“Schools and clubs were the backbone of hockey in Delhi.”
“The hockey clubs gradually vanished in Delhi. It eventually led to the downfall of hockey in the Capital,” said Harbinder.
Politics at play
Petty politics at the state hockey unit was also one of the reasons behind hockey’s downfall.
Dispute within the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) in early 2010, and the establishment of Hockey India (HI) as the new national governing body for hockey in India divided people at the state level too.
The new state units formed under HI were different from the previous state units affiliated to the IHF.
“Several people lost interest in hockey. It might take time to regain the lost glory,” Hawa Singh said.
“Besides, old-timers who successfully managed the clubs didn’t get the same support from the younger generation in the family.”
The declining interest in the game could perhaps be the reason why there is no representation from Delhi at the ongoing 2023 FIH Odisha Men’s Hockey World Cup9.