Sticking by hockey

Remember the buzz Chak De! India had created about hockey? The much-lauded 2007 film did its bit for the sport, but the excitement was short-lived. The Olympic hockey team’s dismal performance in London certainly didn’t help. Not to mention the embarrassing politics between the two hockey associations of India, Hockey India (HI) and the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF).  

Mir Ranjan Negi
Mir Ranjan Negi with hockey players from Abhi Foundation at the Don Bosco Shelter, Matunga. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Fortunately, perhaps thanks to our Olympic failure, the formerly pro-IHF Mumbai Hockey Association (MHA) seems to have kept politics aside this year. In the first week of August, a new committee was announced, which includes members from HI too. Mir Ranjan Negi, former national hockey player, best known for coaching the Chak De! India girls, is a prime example. 

Glamourising hockey
Earlier this year, just before Mumbai hosted the World Hockey Series, the MHA ground at Churchgate was given a revamp. “We installed new floodlights and laid out a brand new world-class Astroturf,” says Gurbax Singh, former secretary of the MHA. Singh, who is now an honorary member of the association, says he refused to contest the elections this year.

Virendra Bhandarkar
Virendra Bhandarkar stands in front of the Sports Authority of India’s new hockey turf in Kandivli (East). Pic/Suresh KK

Negi, on the other hand, is visibly excited about being on the committee. He has several plans to bring in “fun, entertainment and glamour” to the game. “Currently the game is not exciting enough for youngsters. They find practice too dull,” he confesses.  The committee, he claims, has a two-fold plan to fix this. Firstly, there will be an increase in tournaments. “We plan to bring back all the old tournaments we used to host, including the Aga Khan Cup and the Gold Cup. Competitions will give upcoming players something to look forward to,” he opines.  To top this off, Negi plans to introduce a touch of Bollywood to the sport. “I have a lot of friends in the industry. I will invite Shah Rukh Khan, Sonu Nigam and others to add some entertainment value,” he says, adding that the World Series Hockey was lacking the much-needed glamour quotient.

Turfs in the city
Apart from MHA’s Churchgate turf, there are two other turfs in the city. “Fr Agnel School in Navi Mumbai has an Astroturf and Sports Authority of India (SAI) has one in Kandivli (East),” adds Negi. He feels that the next step would be to introduce one in the hockey-loving Bandra or Matunga area.
SAI’s Kandivli turf, which was opened up to the public last year in October, has encouraged city schools to take up the game. “Jamnabai Narsee, Children’s Academy, St Augustine and St John’s School have been using the turf since October or November last year,” reveals Virendra Bhandarkar, assistant director of SAI.

Mumbai Hockey Association
The Mumbai Hockey Association (MHA) got an artificial turf laid out before hosting the World Hockey Series earlier this year. Pic/Suresh KK

“The turf can be used free of cost,” adds Olympian Rahul Singh, who coaches part time at SAI. Compared to MHA’s turf, which can cost you up to Rs 3,000 for two hours, SAI’s facility comes as manna to hockey enthusiasts in the city. “It was the need of the hour,” believes Bhandarkar about the easy-to-maintain turf. “Mumbai seriously lacks the infrastructure. Unlike football or cricket, hockey cannot be played just anywhere. If you play hockey in open areas, it could result in serious accidents,” he adds. Get hit by a hockey stick or ball and you could be severely injured.

School kids take up the stick
Earlier this year, Juhu’s Jamnabai Narsee School finally set up a boy’s hockey team. Former Indian women’s hockey team captain, Sybil Miranda (nee D’Mello), held a hockey camp for the school’s children three years ago. “Barely three or four kids turned up,” she says. But the children who attended it enjoyed themselves, encouraging the school to introduce the game into their curriculum. “Gradually, more and more children signed up and we were able to form a girl’s team. This year, they managed to beat the St Andrew’s College team in the under-17 category,” she says proudly. The boy’s team will compete in the upcoming season.

Training is conducted every weekend and on public holidays. “Once or twice a month, the children are taken to Kandivli’s new turf to practice,” she adds. “The turf helps to maintain higher fitness levels. If the children are trained on turf, a 70-minute game on grass becomes far easier for them,” says Miranda.
Fourteen year-old Jamnabai students Sach Chabria and Aashumi Shah are thrilled to have the opportunity to play this ‘glorious sport’. “It’s exciting to be taught by an Olympian,” says Chabria. “Our family and friends are very proud that we play hockey,” adds Shah, adding that they plan to continue to play the sport for as long as they can.

Grassroots level
“The right time for players to be coached is 14 to 15 years. Currently the average age is 24 to 25 years, which is too late to receive beginner’s training,” says Negi, who believes that Michael Nobbs, the coach for the Indian Olympic team cannot be blamed for their dismal performance.  Getting the players at the grassroots level is the only solution, feels Negi, who seems to be walking the talk. The Abhi Foundation, which he founded in 2007, has helped train underprivileged children across the city. In February, the foundation set up an academy in Mahul village near Chembur.

“Over 250 children from fishing families are trained to play hockey, football and athletics on a ground allotted by the BMC,” says Ahmed Naqvi, CEO of Abhi Foundation. As far as Mumbai schools are concerned, the hockey scene has been largely dominated by missionary schools, believes Negi. Perhaps Jamnabai’s initiative to promote hockey will help spread enthusiasm among other schools as well. “Until the Indian government begins work on a war footing, hockey’s future seems bleak. Just a little more effort, and Indian hockey will enter the golden age again,”  promises Negi. We can only wait with bated breath. 

No national sport
We’ve all been taught that hockey is India’s national sport in school. But it could only take a curious little 10 year-old to reveal that the government had never officially made such a declaration. Aishwarya Parashar filed an RTI query to find out when hockey had been named the national sport. The response she got early last month from the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports surprised her, and the entire nation. Hockey aside, there is no official record to state that the country has a national sport at all

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