India's Gurjant Singh celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the Asian Champions Trophy 2023 final hockey match between India and Malaysia, in Chennai, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023 | Photo: PTI
For long, Indian hockey has been living in past glory. India dominated the world from the 1920s to effectively 1980, the year India won its last and eighth gold medal in the Olympic Games. Like the West Indies slipping off in cricket, India thereafter virtually became a nobody in hockey. The magic that Dhyan Chand, one of India’s greatest players, could bring about became a golden chapter in history, and so did many other deeds of our players. That is why when India, after 40 years, won another medal, a bronze at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, it turned out to be an emotional moment for all hockey lovers, nay even sports fans in the country. Any positives thereafter were welcomed as the desire was to see India back at the helm of this sport.
It is in this context that one had to view the latest success story of Indian hockey, the win of the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai. It was a moment that will long remain etched in the minds of all those who were witness to the grand spectacle that unfolded at the revamped Mayor Radhakrishnan stadium. It was a comeback win of the highest order. India fought back from a 1-3 down situation and with time running out beat Malaysia 4-3 in the end to make it an enthralling final. What is more, the win made it title number four for India, a record. The packed stadium could not have asked for more as excitement ran on until the last seconds. Suffice it to state, the heart-stopping contest seemed worth all the watching thanks to the result that triggered scenes of joy and celebrations. Many in the galleries who had come with Indian flags raised them high to give the occasion a touch of a national celebration.
True, 16 years ago many old-timers would have recalled memories of a similar happening. That was the Asia Cup tournament then where India trounced Korea in a high-scoring final to send a frenzy around in the very same stadium. But times had changed. India had been unable to establish the kind of consistency in displaying supremacy that seemed its right once. What made the win special was it had come against a side which is known to come up with surprises. Indeed, who would have thought that Malaysia which was swamped in the league stage by the home team would rise to effect such shocks in the most important match of the tournament! Not until the last quarter of the match did the equation change. Little over four years ago in the Jakarta Asian Games, Malaysia had shown its capability by denying India a passage beyond the semi-final, edging it out via the penalties. India had to be content with the bronze then and Malaysia took the silver.
Until the latter half of the final contest in the Champions Trophy, it seemed a similar setback was in the offing. But this Indian team, now coached by the South African Craig Fulton, showed the ability to reorganize and reconstruct. That was what happened as the chaos that prevailed was replaced with a kind of purposeful hockey in the midst of tiring legs to turn the match around. The fightback worked and the men came up with that famous win. Harmanpreet Singh, Akashdeep, Manpreet and Co did it for India to raise hopes of better times for Indian hockey ahead with the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China just a month away. Indeed, skipper Harmanpreet will have a special reason for elation as he top-scored with nine goals. The drag-flicker showed in ample measure his skills in converting penalty corners. Goalkeeper P R Sreejesh, the hero at the Tokyo Olympics, could reach a personal milestone of 300 appearances. Not to forget was the performance of local boy Selvam Karthi, the first player from Tamil Nadu in 11 years to break into the national side. Karthi earned the ‘ best young player’ award. All positives that matter in the end in the rebuilding exercise of Indian hockey.
Overall, the near fortnight-long tournament could not have come at a better time with Asian Games so close by. India could test its wares with five of the best Asian teams _ Asian games champion Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan and China. Even Pakistan failed to provide the jitters, so to say. Usually, an India-Pakistan encounter for all the reasons we know can be surcharged with emotions. But this Pakistan side filled with juniors did not pose any problem. It was clean hockey that was well received by the sport-loving fans in the stadium.
Finally, a word of praise has to be placed on record for the encouragement that the Tamil Nadu Government had injected to ensure that the event was held in Chennai and in a big way. The government provided Rs 16 crore to revamp the MRK stadium with fresh turf, similar to what will be put to use in the Paris Olympics next year and other development works. That way the players could have a feel of the modern hockey turf that would be in vogue in international events ahead, including the Olympics. So now the focus shifts to the Asian Games. It was in the 2014 Busan Games that India last won a gold medal in hockey. It was a bronze in Jakarta last time in 2018. Can Indian hockey fortunes continue to rise will be the silent prayer and wish on the lips of every fan.