Tokyo Bronze Etches A Proud Arc Of Indian Hockey History

Tokyo Bronze Etches A Proud Arc Of Indian Hockey HistoryIndian men's hockey team wins bronze in Tokyo 2020
Snapshot
  • Gold in Moscow (1980) was on a field made poorer, by an absence of the day’s best teams. Bronze in Munich (1972) marked a decline, rather than an ascent.

    A bronze in Tokyo, after 49 years, means that a proud arc of history is curving unto the rise again.

A weak summer sun hung late over the Dynamo Stadium in Moscow, as India took on Spain in the 1980 men’s Olympic field hockey finals. Dressed in pale blue tops over white shorts, the Indians were back where they belonged after sixteen agonizing years. The Spaniards had Amat, who scored eight times against Cuba in a pool match, but form, tradition, and the wizardry of striker Surinder Singh, said that India had the edge.

Many thousands of miles away, a young boy sat hunched over a Grundig radio set, listening intently to the commentary. Brought up on fabulous stories of legendary Indian hockey lore, this would be the first match he’d followed.

“Will Surinder strike, Achan? Will he? Will he?” The boy’s excitement was palpable.

The striker’s response was to score two goals within minutes of each other, as India went on to beat Spain 4-3. Gold! Olympic hockey gold! And it was India’s once more.

Wasn’t this simply fantastic, the boy asked?

“Yes, son, it is. Gold is gold” The father replied, “But with the big teams not in the fray, this was a battle for the wooden spoon. Our last real medal was the bronze in Munich, in 1972”

This was the sobering truth. A number of nations boycotted the Moscow Olympics, to protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As a result, most of the leading hockey nations, including West Germany, Holland, Australia and Pakistan didn’t participate in 1980. Still, gold was gold, and the boy left it at that.

41 years later, the Grundig radio set had been replaced by a large, flat screen television set, which beamed India’s bronze medal match against a now-unified Germany in high definition color. The excitement, though, was just as palpable, and a man became a boy for four sizzling quarters.

The Tokyo Olympics was turning out to be a banner year for Indian hockey. The women had made it to the semifinals, for the first time in history, and were scheduled to play Great Britain for the bronze on 6 August. The men lost out to Belgium in a scorching semifinal, yet here they were, playing for bronze.

Hockey had always been India’s national sport until Astroturf killed our game. The dribble and the run made way for passes, while the delightful uncertainty of grass gave way to a rather boringly predictable path of ball travel on synthetic surfaces.

That decline, and its resultant lack of sporting honor, was filled by cricket, but there was something about those old stories which never let the magic of Indian hockey die out. Olympic gold remained the holy grail of Indian sport. Every four years, a billion Indians would loyally follow the tournament, fervently praying that this team, this time, would finally rekindle a fire once lit by Major Dhyan Chand a century ago.

But it never happened. In 1988, India finished sixth courtesy a loss to Pakistan. In 1992, we finished seventh. In 1996, we slipped to eighth place. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, we held hosts Australia to a draw in a pool game, but still failed to make it to the knockout stage. It was the same story in 2004, even though the team included Dhanraj Pillay and Dilip Tirkey.

The next edition, we failed to qualify for the tournament in Beijing – for the very first time in history. If that was humiliating, London 2012 was worse; we finished last in a pool of twelve. And in 2016, we made it to the medal round only because the knockouts were expanded to include a quarterfinal stage. The warmth of the Major’s embers was fading fast.

Then came Tokyo, delayed by a year because of the Wuhan virus pandemic. India did very well to stand second in their pool, winning four out of five matches. They beat New Zealand, Argentina, Spain, and Japan. Their only defeat was a 1-7 loss to Australia.

The team’s confidence, skill and aggression built up as the tournament progressed; Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh scored two goals each in the leagues, as India forged a 3-1 quarter final win over Great Britain. It was bad luck with Belgium in the semifinal, because both teams set a scorching pace in the first quarter. Three goals were scored in the opening ten minutes – two by India, and one by the Belgians. In the end though, we lost 2-5, and were forced to play Germany for the bronze.

But the difference is that this time, Indian fans were treated to a never-say-die fighting spirit not seen in decades. The Germans struck first only for Simranjeet Singh to reply with a rocketing field goal. The Germans took the lead back, and then scored again a minute later to make it 3-1.

Undeterred, the Indians skillfully clawed their way out. Two minutes after the Germans scored their third goal, Hardik Singh scored off a penalty corner. Two minutes later, Harmanpreet Singh scored off another penalty corner to level scores at 3-3. And it was still only the end of the second quarter.

In the third, the Indians finally took the lead a minute after play resumed, when Rupinder Pal Singh successfully shot a penalty stroke into the box. It was his third goal of the tournament. Three minutes later, it was Simranjeet Singh’s turn to thwack in a field goal. The score was 5-3 now.

That was the set up for a sizzling final quarter, when the Germans tried their best to break the Indian defense. Windfeder converted a penalty corner to make it 5-4, but they were flagging visibly. Still, they tried, setting up attacks, passing long, passing high, turning on dimes, and reverse flicking with both feet in the air, but nothing would get through goalie Sreejesh today.

With six seconds to go, Germany were awarded a penalty corner. You knew – you just knew – that a goal was coming. A billion hearts were in their mouths as the corner was taken. The ball was trapped smartly on the ‘D’, and a desperate German hand smashed it towards the net. It was a furious shot, meant to score, yet all it met was the resolute hand of India’s goalie. The Germans slumped to the ground in defeat, as the embers of another age started to glow once more. India had won.

Tears; incredible, beautiful tears started to flow. Maybe it was ‘only a bronze’, as some said, but we knew what this actually signified. So did the Indian players, as they gathered in a circle, closed their eyes, folded their hands, and bent their heads, to thank their Gods for the glory they had finally brought home. This medal has more meaning than present euphoria lets us fathom, unless that euphoria is the meaning. Maybe it is.

Gold in Moscow was wrought on a field made poorer, by an absence of the day’s best teams. Bronze in Munich marked a decline, rather than an ascent; the perigee of past triumphs, if you will. But Hockey pride had always been Indian pride, and we were reminded of that truth today. A bronze in Tokyo, after 49 years, means that a proud arc of history is curving unto the rise again.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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