Madras to Chennai: When Indian hockey had a prominent presence in the city

As the city gets set to host its first international hockey assignment in fifteen-and-a-half-years, it's still insane when you think about the kind of place the sport was in back then.
The hockey stadium in Chennai. (Photo| Ashwin Prasath)
The hockey stadium in Chennai. (Photo| Ashwin Prasath)

CHENNAI: The Chennai of 2007 and today isn't too different. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was the ruling party. Actor Vijay was already one of the most bankable film stars and proved it with Pokkiri. A highly-anticipated Rajinikanth movie (Sivaji) was the talk of the town as is the case now. A team from Chennai won a T20 tournament (Chennai Superstars clinched the inaugural but the now defunct Indian Cricket League).

It was different, though, in one way. At some level, the place was running Indian hockey. Even if the state had stopped contributing to the roster in terms of players, thanks to the presence of a few influential administrators — none more so than K Jothikumaran — an international tournament in India usually meant the city was the destination. Chennai had already hosted India's first Champions Trophy in 1996.
Nine years later, the city joined Karachi, Amstelveen, Lahore and Berlin to host the event twice. In 2007, the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium, a venue that scores high on vibes but isn't the concrete bowl that most modern stadia are, got a fresh coat of paint ahead of the Asia Cup. Four months later, Belgium came to Chennai for a 5-match series. Sandwiched between the two Champions Trophies were Test matches with Pakistan, Germany and Poland. It's perhaps fair to say Chennai was the OG Bhubaneswar in terms of hosting international hockey matches.

Yet, a few months after that Pongal series against Belgium in 2008, the music died. The sport, available on tap for so long, was turned off. Jothikumaran, who had by then used his contacts book to get the World Cup to New Delhi, was sacked following a sting operation by a news channel. That, though, was just a Monday for the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) who were seemingly on their last legs. One month before the sacking, the men's team failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time ever. A black swan event.

As the city gets set to host its first international hockey assignment in fifteen-and-a-half years, it's still insane when you think about the kind of place the sport was in back then.

Every other week, there was a sad news story. One player caught an accidental bullet on the morning he was travelling to reach New Delhi airport to leave for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Another player suffered a career-ending accident three weeks before an Asia Cup in Malaysia in 2003. Then IHF president, KPS Gill, compared match fees to players as 'bribery' to a magazine. A coach's pre-match plan was 'zor se khelo (play with passion)'. Even the 'p' in professionalism was missing. However, there was time for the IHF to send its players to a boot camp at a Centre usually reserved for soldiers preparing for battle on the frontlines. It was bonkers. Batshit. Crazy. Tumultuous. 

Madras — Chennai — had a ringside view. It began earnestly in the early 90s when the state association conducted the 1992 edition of the national championships in Madurai. It doubled up as selection trials for the Olympics in Barcelona. Tamil Nadu had some players part of history (VJ Philips was a 1975 WC winner and a former captain of the national team while V Baskaran was captain the last time the side tasted Olympic gold (Moscow) before he became a coach) but it's fair to say that it still became the accidental centre. You can perhaps draw a straight line from the time Indian Olympic Association (IOA) included hockey as a sport for the 1995 South Asian Games (it hadn't featured in previous editions) to the city hosting a multitude of international Tests/events post that.

The rebuilt Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium (originally known as the Corporation Stadium before the SAF Games) in 1995 was state-of-the-art. Jothikumaran, who had been general secretary of the IHF for a few years then, sensed an opportunity. The Champions Trophy came to Chennai, less than six months after the city had been rechristened.

It also sort of helped that the Stadium kept pulling in big crowds. Even though the culture of sports tourism was almost non-existent in the late 90s, it didn't matter. "If you take places like Vepery, Thousand Lights, Royapettah, Triplicane even... all of these places had a very strong hockey culture," says Baskaran. "A lot of state players came from places 4-5kms from the Stadium. So, Chennai's hockey community had, by chance or design, grown next to the Stadium. It was natural for them and their friends and family members to fill the stands."

For the next 13 years, till the last series against Belgium, it never had problems in pulling in the spectators. Viren Rasquinha, who played in the 2005 Champions Trophy, picks up the story. "India didn't fare well," he says. 'But there was just so much pride in playing in that event at home. Anyway, I have to say that I have always loved playing at Chennai. The crowd is just so passionate. They love their hockey and know the sport well. In my book, it's one of the most exciting places to play the sport." There is a label — perhaps self-anointed — about the city's sports-watching public. #KnowledgeableChennaiCrowd. It's not hard to understand where it comes from.

Rasquinha was right. India didn't fare well. They finished fifth, scored six goals, conceded 11 times and won one (against Pakistan). One could argue the decline had well and truly set in, the rot underway. They were no longer capable of challenging the elite (10th at the 2002 World Cup and 7th at the 2004 Olympics) but they were still relevant, hosting a blue-riband invitational six-nations event (not dissimilar to a period in the last 10 years). Both journalist Sharda Ugra, who covered the team in the noughties, and Baskaran, who was involved as a coach at that time, echoed the same reason.

"Everybody knew it was because of Jothikumaran," Ugra says. "It was down to Jothi," Baskaran says. "He had readymade facilities here. He was able to impress people." While he was able to impress the suits, the team didn't have a lot of fans. "Pretty much every day was a bad news story," Ugra remembers. "It was just a bad news sport... scenes of constant bickering, moaning, nobody calling out the bad governance."

All of the people who spoke to the Daily agreed on one thing — bad governance. Including Jothikumaran himself when he spoke about Ric Charlesworth time with the Indian team in 2007-08. "I don't want to blame anybody," he says. "He wasn't given free rein, he wasn't used properly. He wasn't taken into full confidence, that's my personal view." 

On the sting operation that led to his sacking (a news channel showed him accepting bribes for the selection of players into the team), he calls it 'sabotage'. "It was sabotage, a stage-managed sting operation. We were there for 14-15 years, what was the allegation in the selection of players?" However, he readily accepts that his presence helped Chennai get a lot of assignments.

Coming back to the bad governance, how did the likes of Rasquinha focus on the job on the field? "As a player, there's enough to be stressed out already," he says. "Form, fitness, how the team is doing, how can we get better... now, if some people are doing certain wrong things outside the field... I have always tried to do what's within my control. But obviously all that was disappointing." 

Ugra is more intimate about her experiences in covering the sport then. "Before every Olympics, the only story used to be hockey," she says. "There were 2-3 flickers of hope from time to time but inevitably, you had to write about hockey. And it was horrible. But the thing was hockey stood for something in an Olympic scenario. Everybody knew the Indian team. They had an aura about them because of the sense of history and culture. In Athens, crowds came to watch the Indian hockey team."(But) at some level, you thought the sport was cursed. There was the accident (Jugraj Singh), the bullet injury (Sandeep Singh)."

Nothing, though, screams Indian hockey like the way the team used Jugraj's accident as a sort of rallying cry to deliver the 2003 Asia Cup. Here's Rasquinha. "I was part of the team in all those incidents. At the Asia Cup, there was a sense of 'we have to do it for Jugraj'. We won the Asia Cup for the first time and then visited Jugraj." Enroute the title, they beat South Korea in the semifinal (they had reached the semifinal of the Olympics in 2000) and a still good Pakistan in the final.

If that was the high point on the field, Rasquinha's next few sentences is enough to paint a picture. "We were taking the evening flight to Monchengladbach for the World Cup in 2006. He (Sandeep) was coming in the Shatabdi to Delhi. You know... sport is like a metaphor for life. Like in life, in sports also there are so many ups and downs. You lose so many times and have so many setbacks. It's about how you keep going."  

That 2006 World Cup was a sign of things to come but not before another false dawn. In the next Asia Cup at Chennai, India won it. In 2008, rock bottom was found as they failed to qualify for the Olympics. "That was the culmination of what I would say, poor federation, poor planning... there's always been talent in Indian hockey but you should back it by good organisation. There were a lot of mistakes made in Indian hockey in the 90s and 00s," Rasquinha adds. A logical endpoint when it was 'being run randomly," Ugra adds.

Here's a sign that the sport was run randomly. A few months after India's 2006 World Cup debacle, the IHF decided to ignore all governance issues to announce they were bidding to host the next World Cup in 2010. "We had the experience of hosting the World Cup in 1982 in Mumbai so it was normal for events to come to India," Ugra says. "But we didn't realise how shit our standards were. Because we felt we were relevant in hockey, that's why these events were coming to us but that was a completely stupid idea." 

Within a year of winning that bid and the actual World Cup in 2010, Jothikumaran was sacked, the IHF was suspended, a new body to govern the sport was created, one autocrat replaced another, players decided to boycott training camp as their dues weren't paid but the performance remained the same. They finished eighth. One thing changed. Chennai's place on the hockey map disappeared till it became a footnote.

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