Indian players react after receiving their bronze medals (Reuters)
Remember the day. The bronze that Indian men’s hockey team won with a fighting, brave, heart-stopping 5-4 win over Germany will resonate in the annals of Indian hockey – no, Indian sport – for a long time to come. It will speak of not just turning a corner, but of a lifetime rolling over, as if in deep slumber all these four decades.
What Manpreet Singh and his gritty men achieved on a muggy morning at the Oi stadium in Tokyo was not just to correct years of dejection by finally capturing an elusive medal at the Olympics. Crucially, what they were achieving was the affirmation of why hockey is still the national sport of the country.
What’s all the fuss about, the millennial Indian might ask? After all, over 70% of the country’s population wasn’t even born when India last stood on the hockey podium – Moscow 1980, for gold. Truth is, the game has changed in the last four decades, completely unrecognizable from when we were lords and masters of a sport that demanded grace and oozed class. On Thursday, we were winning bronze in Tokyo, in a new sport wrapped in an older idea. It was a medal as much needed to rejuvenate a sport as it was perhaps to shake off perceptions of old.
But we can be allowed to rejoice like we are doing at the moment. Hockey was always India’s first love, nothing united us diverse people like this sport of sticks and guile. Maybe it was its inherent trickery, the accent on control, speed and skill and the accompanying egalitarian ethos that won over everybody – the Sikh, the north-easterner, Anglo-Indian, south Indian, Adivasi, and north Indian, all nurtured a soft spot for the sport and that’s why the disappointments of the past 40 years always hurt so much more.