By Harpreet Kaur Lamba
Hockey made its Commonwealth Games debut at Kuala Lumpur in 1998 when the quadrennial event saw the entry of team sports for the first time.
That the 2010 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee — till date — has sold the most tickets for hockey matches, among the 17 disciplines at the Delhi Games, is proof, if any was required, to its popularity.
Much like the world stage, Australia have dominated hockey at the Commonwealth Games, winning five of the six gold medals available to date. The only one they missed out on was when the India’s women team clinched the gold at Manchester 2002.
Of the 10 teams set to battle it out at the Delhi Games in October, seven — Australia, England, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Pakistan and hosts India — were part of the Hockey World Cup in New Delhi earlier this year.
"The competition at the Commonwealth Games is very high. We will face the Games knowing that it will be a difficult competition and at the same time, with the hope of getting the first medal in the Games," said men’s chief coach Jose Brasa.
In the men’s event, Australia are the reigning world champions, a clash with Pakistan is always awaited eagerly by both players and fans, while New Zealand and England have been creating ripples at the international stage for quite some time.
Of the lot, England’s rapid rise in both the men’s and the women’s event has been of note.
In 1998, England finished with a brace of medals — the women won the silver, losing to Australia in the final and the men won bronze, beating India on penalties in the third place play-off.
England have now won a medal at each of the three editions of the Games, barring gold. Keeping with their recent exploits in the international stage, the team will be one the strongest contenders for the October event.
In fact, the men’s semi-final between Australia and England in 1998 is considered among the most memorable matches of the CWG, with extra-time and a sudden death required before Australia emerged winners. The Kookaburras went on to win gold with a victory over Malaysia.
Said Australian coach Ric Charlesworth recently, "We are the number 1 ranked team in the world, but I think that can give teams a bit more incentive when they face us. England are very capable of beating us as we saw at the World Cup. India and Pakistan will be at home in the heat of Delhi and with the reduced squad sizes makes things less predictable."
For the Indian men, the event has been their Achilles’ heel. Despite a formidable team in the late 90s under the mercurial Dhanraj Pillay, along with the likes of Mukesh Kumar, Mohammed Riaz and Dilip Tirkey, India have failed to break the CWG barrier.
The opening edition saw the men’s team finish fourth, the squad didn’t participate in 2002, and finished a lowly sixth in the last edition.
Said striker Tushar Khandker, "For some odd reason, the men’s team have not been able to produce the results at the CWG. Why, I cannot say for sure. For us, the present lot, it is motivation enough to do well."
The women, on the other hand, have had a decent run.
‘Golden Girl’ Mamta Kharab handed the country its brightest moment at the 2002 Manchester Games, when she struck an extra-time goal in a dramatic final to pip hosts and favourites England. India won 3-2 at Manchester to bring home their first-ever hockey gold at CWG. The girls followed it up with a silver in 2006 (Melbourne), losing the final to Australia.
Often referred to as the "friendly games", the CWG does not offer direct qualification to any major event nor does it guarantee a rise in world rankings. The Games have, for the years, stood for pride and sportsmanship.
As Khandker sums it up, "When a player dons a national shirt, nothing can be deemed as friendly.
"For me or any other player, the Commonwealth Games is equivalent to taking part in the Olympics or the Asian Games. When you play for India, you carry the hopes of a billion Indians along with you. It is pride that drives any sportsperson, everything else takes a backseat then," he said.
The challenge from their opponents notwithstanding, India’s real battle would lie in conquering the demons within. The preparations for both the men’s and women’s squads have been mired by off-field controversies. From the ongoing struggle for power in Indian hockey to the players’ strike to the recent sex scandal involving the women’s coach M.K. Kaushik, the going has anything but smooth.
Said Brasa, "Uncertainty is bad for any team. We should be away from this dispute, and we should also keep the players away. The players and coaches have to concentrate on our aims to keep doing better.
"I hope that the teams would overcome these things to perform well," he said.
The Asian Age