The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Hockey and football in the free market world

For those who came of age in the decades that followed independence, the sporting universe consisted of three major games ' hockey, football and cricket. Polly Umrigar and Salim Durrani were our heroes; but so were Chuni Goswami and Jarnail Singh, Joginder Singh and Inam-ur-Rehman. Test matches were big events, but hockey games also drew big crowds. And in Calcutta at least, football surpassed all other sports when it came to fan mania. The situation today bears little resemblance to the period I am describing.

While cricket has gone on to become national pastime, sport and obsession rolled into one; hockey and football have seen their fortunes decline precipitously in the past few decades. The average match in the once-prestigious Beighton Cup now draws less than a hundred spectators, and even well-informed sports fans would be hard put to name the Indian hockey XI. The country has also turned its back on football. The sudden death of two major team sports is a remarkable event that has few parallels in recent history. We need to reflect on this state of affairs to better understand how sport in postcolonial contexts is linked with issues of modernity, identity and nationhood.

It is apparent that the decline of interest in both football and hockey coincides with the advent of liberalization and free market economics. The relative prosperity of these sports in post-independence India was largely due to state patronage. The Indian government, in keeping with its paternalistic character, sought to oversee the domains of leisure and entertainment. To this end it provided the institutional structure ' federations, tournaments, training schools, around which competitive sports was organized ' and maintained teams like Eastern Railways, Punjab Police, BSF or Customs that offered secure careers for players. Like the dams, steel plants, shipyards and coach factories of that period, hockey and football too were nationalist projects. When the Nehruvian state withered away, every sport had to contend with a new order of things structured by advertising, cable television and corporate sponsorship. Henceforth the fortune of a particular sport would be determined not by the management of politicians and bureaucrats, but by the unforgiving logic of consumer capital. Neither hockey nor football was capable of generating the sort of audiences and revenues required for survival in such a milieu. Consequently, in the space of two decades, both sports lost their aura.

Why did both hockey and football fail in the age of consumption' It could be argued that hockey's appeal began to wane ever since other nations first caught up and then surpassed us on the Astroturf. But while we may no longer be champions, we are still the fifth best hockey-playing nation in the world. Our current ODI ranking is two spots lower, but being seventh best out of only nine countries has in no way diminished our appetite for one-day cricket. I would like to offer two other reasons. Firstly, unlike football, cricket or tennis, field hockey has never been a prestigious sport: it has no 'hallowed' shrines like Lord's or Wembley or Wimbledon, nor has it produced celebrities of the order of a Bradman, a Beckham or a Becker. There is, I would argue, a sort of 'iron law' in the realm of sports: the greater the status a particular sport has in the global North, the higher its 'caste' in the domestic context. Tennis and golf are far more coveted than badminton and table tennis; hence the enormous attention paid to individuals like Sania Mirza and Arjun Atwal at the expense of those who participate in the latter sports.

Hockey's staid reputation at the international level meant that it could not be accommodated within a new representational economy based on mass media and commodification. The game's current fate stems from its lack of fit with the style and tempo of global entertainment.

There is a second, more unsavory, reason behind the paradox that the only sport in which the country has enjoyed any sort of international success is now so blatantly disregarded by all. Consider this list of players who have represented the nation over the years: Pinniger, Allen, Hammond and Rocque (1928), Hussain, Jaffar, Khan and Dara (1936), Charanjit, Prithipal, Joginder and Harbinder Singh (1964) and Tirkey, Lakra, D'Souza and Gagan Ajit Singh (2005). Hockey, from the earliest days, has been a game of minorities, by minorities and perhaps ultimately for minorities. For reasons that historians and sociologists of Indian sport need to ascertain, upper caste and upper class Hindus never really took to the sport. Football, by contrast, was enthusiastically embraced by elite sections of society. Thus the immortal 1911 Mohun Bagan team ' Hiralal Mukherjee, Bhuti Sukul, Sudhir Chatterjee, Manmohan Mukherjee, Rajen Sengupta, Nilmadhav Bhattacharya, Kanu Roy, Habul Sarkar, Abhilash Ghosh, Bijoydas Bhaduri, Shibdas Bhaduri ' consisted almost exclusively of players from the bhadralok castes. Hockey players of genius have invariably been Anglo-Indians, Muslims, Sikhs and 'tribals'. The elevation of Dhyan Chand, a Hindu, to a mythic status within the sport's pantheon, is at bottom a compensatory act that hides the mainstream's wholesale disavowal of the sport. The failure of hockey is a sign of the inability of the nation to accommodate its minorities. The pieties of secularism notwithstanding, minority cultures have remained extrinsic to the body of the nation, tolerated but never fully admitted into the centre of things. Given its minoritarian origins, it comes as no surprise that hockey finds itself banished to the margins of contemporary culture.

It is a bigger mystery as to why football has also failed at the national level. As in the case of hockey, the game flourished in the immediate aftermath of independence, with tournaments like the IFA Shield, the Rovers and the Durand that attracted large crowds and featured clubs from all over the country. Many of these teams ' Andhra Pradesh Police, Punjab Police, BSF ' were championship teams that fielded players of the highest calibre. However, the fact that they were government-sponsored and not locally supported clubs suggests that football was not organic to the areas these clubs were based in. When state patronage began to wane, these teams disintegrated rapidly. Ever since, football lost its all-India appeal and became localized in two regions ' Bengal and Goa. With all the interest generated by international soccer, why was football unable to spread beyond this limited geography' I would argue that the very manner by which football became a popular sport in these states proved to be an impediment for further growth. In the case of Bengal, the game became an instrument used to construct a modern Bengali identity in the wake of the large influx of immigrants from the east. The great rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan was at bottom an integrative mechanism that mediated between ghotis and bangals and gave sense to what being a Bengali was all about.

Consequently, the game was thought of in exclusively parochial terms as not properly belonging to the alien space connoted by that peculiarly Bengali term 'non-Bengali'. All this meant that football was totally internal to the cultural system and was thus unable to capture a significant portion of the market in the new economy. Globalization has caused its appeal to diminish even in Calcutta.

In Goa too, football was intimately bound up with questions of constructing ethnic identity, which were of special concern given Goa's unique history. Once again, the game remained restricted to a small region. The failure of football to be generalizable leads us to an intriguing set of questions regarding the transmission of culture: what kind of relationship obtains between the various ethnicities of this country' How is it that a sport that elicits so much passion in one state fails to do so in another' Though a lot has been written about the interaction between castes, classes or religious communities, there is, to date, little literature on how different ethnic groups impact on each other. The mystery surrounding the collapse of football could be better elucidated if we possessed a theoretical framework for analysing such phenomena. To sum up then, the provincializing of football occurred because the game was far too localized and thus unsuitable for articulating with the universal, that is globalization. There is, however, another reply to the question as to why hockey and football are in the plight they are in. That answer, which I hope to elaborate on in a forthcoming piece, consists of only one word: cricket.

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