Sporting struggles and triumphs
As sport turned robust, India’s stagnancy was linked to what billiards ace Michael Ferreira calls “a refusal to adapt”
As Independence arrived, he, arguably his nation’s finest sportsman, was in his early 40s, his body exhausted, but his legend undiminished. In Goal, the book on his remarkable life which is, in fact, a compilation of articles from Sport & Pastime, he recounts a sweet story from 1947.
An invitation had come to the Indian Hockey Federation from the Asian Sports Association of East Africa for a series of matches. But there was one condition. A team without him, Dhyan Chand, would be an unwelcome team. On that 1947 tour, so goes a familiar tale, he slipped a telling pass through to K.D. Singh Babu, then turned away. When Babu, having scored, queried this behaviour, Dhyan Chand said: “If you could not get a goal from that, you did not deserve to be on my team.”
This confidence felt by Dhyan Chand was echoed across the nation. By Independence, India owned world hockey, and would continue to do so, winning 18 consecutive Olympic matches from 1948 till the loss in the 1960 final.
Sixty years into a free India, when an Olympic gold is so hard to grasp, it is hard to imagine that it was not uncommon way back then to find Indians with three golds. Leslie Claudius, who described to me the enchanting picture of him sitting in an Olympic bus with a pipe in his mouth only to stop his teeth from chattering, won a fourth medal, a silver. So did Udham Singh.
Those amateur days were glorious days. Last month, India was an envious spectator at football’s Asia Cup where once, in 1964, it had been runner-up. It also triumphed at the 1951 and ’62 Asiads, and surged to the Olympic football semi-finals in Melbourne 1956, with a team that P.K. Banerjee, who at 18 was the youngest member then, describes simply as “remarkable” now.
In Melbourne, Willy Meisl, the theorist and author of Soccer Revolution, told coach S.A. Rahim after India’s win over Australia that it was the best display by an Asian team he had seen. Six years earlier India might have earn
ed similar compliments at the World Cup in Brazil, but the tyranny of distance and a preference to play in bare feet, led to a rejection of that 1950 invitation.
Such a chance was not to come again. But then many things would not come again. As sport grew, and nations armed themselves with professionalism, India languished.
Once among Asia’s best in football in the 1950s, now India languishes out of the world top 150. Hockey is on life support. K.D. Jadhav’s Olympic wrestling bronze in 1952 was rivalled only 44 years later by Leander Paes in 1996. Ramanathan Krishnan’s two Wimbledon semi-final placings of 1960-61, in an era of golden Australians, have not been matched.
Culturally, sport was not our calling. In a developing nation, school bags were as ubiquitous as the gym bag was for the Australian. Fitness was not part of our experience and open spaces in cities were swallowed by construction. Ramesh Krishnan can still remember being beaten by much older people in road races during trips to America . Sport was not a recommended career; it was instead often a means to a job. The athlete’s goal was not gold, understandably, but a letter of employment from the Railways.
Still, from the masses, champions, borne by a fierce inner conviction, emerged. As the feathery Prakash Padukone climbed to badminton’s summit in the late 1970s-early 1980 and the Amritrajs and Krishnans charmed us with their elegance, and Michael Ferreira and Geet Sethi advertised their deftness with a billiard cue, what was obvious and pleasing was their collective dexterity, a creative suppleness that extended to India’s batsmen and its hockey players.
Skill not enough
But skill was soon not enough; it had to be allied with power, a shift to speed and strength that would not be to India’s benefit. In cricket, fielding was turning athletic. In tennis, taller men dominated, or those with a lumberjack’s stamina and a big shot. In hockey, the switch to astro-turf, used for the first time at the 1976 Olympics, altered the equation. In football, the sheer acceleration of the modern game was terrifying. As sport turned robust, India’s stagnancy was linked to what Michael Ferreira calls “a refusal to adapt.”
The local tennis circuit once attracted men like Ilie Nastase, Roy Emerson, Neale Fraser, but in time India’s systems could not keep pace. Bureaucrats and politicians ran sport, and were unfamiliar with the demands of sporting excellence. Stadiums were erected for the 1982 Asiad and died a brick at a time. Astro-turf fields were few. Confidence leaked. In the 1990s, a hockey player would tell me that standing beside the tall, blond, shining-new-equipment-clad Germans, India was already a goal down by the time the last notes of the anthems faded.
But men and women fought on and spirited stories appeared on the landscape. A nation enjoys heroes and there was always one to hold on to. P.T. Usha missed an Olympic medal in 1984 by a margin cruel in its minuteness; 24 years earlier, in 1960, a medal evaded Milkha Singh by 0.13 seconds and 40 years later he admitted it still wounded him. Usha, whose beauty in flight made one think of God and gazelles, unlocked a thousand girlish dreams. As a path-breaker she would be equalled only by Sania Mirza.
In another corner of the south, a bespectacled fellow with a humility that shone like his intelligence stirred his own revolution. Now, V. Anand, the 2000 world chess champion, says: “I am tickled pink when someone says I started because of you.” Someone? How about an entire generation? He was India’s first grandmaster; now there are 15. When he arrives in India, as he did this May, players call and then visit him to work together. Of course, he finds the need to add: “It’s not only one way, they show me interesting stuff.”
— THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES
DHYAN CHAND’S ARTISTRY: Those amateur days were glorious days.
Following down a different path, in a way almost unconnected to other Indian sports, was cricket. Here was found amazing progress, yet also startling stagnancy. In 1947-48, the Indians first toured Australia, where they were received by Don Bradman at the airport, but 60 years later victory over the rugged champions has not come. Yet the game has travelled far at the same time, in its reach and richness.
As much as other sports have complained against cricket, they have been too slow to match it. Hockey could never grasp its moment, too inept to turn its occasional success, like the 1998 Asian Games gold, to its advantage; instead it made dubious history, not winning an Asiad medal for the first time in 2006. Cricket was luckier and smarter. India was world class, but in a tiny field, and this helped. So did the winning of the 1983 World Cup, giving the nation a romantic story it desperately needed.
Later, Jagmohan Dalmiya and I.S. Bindra cannily jousted with the west for the right to hold the 1996 World Cup, embraced sponsors, and were fortunate that in the early 1990s Star TV with its stylish pictures and slow-motion replays made Gods of men and fanatics out of once uninterested spectators.
But India struggled when it came to teams. Cricket, for one, was somewhat undone by its cult of individualism. Team sports were also more reliant on professional systems, on grassroots programmes, on talent spotting, on sports science, all areas of weakness. Unsurprisingly, India’s challenge is still led by the athlete away from a team environment, the solitary figure whose unflinching desire propels him over roadblocks, whose support system consists of steadfast parents or spouses. It is easier to find one champion, then manufacture a champion team.
In the past three Olympics we have had three individual medallists (Paes, bronze, 1996; K. Malleswari, bronze, 2000; Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, silver, 2004). Gopichand won the 2001 All-England badminton championship, shooters won world championships, chess players flourished, and Anju George leapt to world championship bronze.
India has a woman in the current tennis top 35, a squash player ranked world No.41, a golfer in the top 50 earlier this year, and a fellow on the edge again of a Formula One seat. Success is seeping out of this land in a steadier trickle, in sports both familiar and foreign to us. As decades go, this last one has been littered with hope.
Rohit Brijnath, a freelance sports writer based in Melbourne, is a regular contributor to The Hindu and Sportstar.
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