The Azlan Shah Cup triumph and a runners-up appearance in the Punjab Gold Cup, a new man at the helm in the national team and an acrimonious power struggle in the game’s governing body are the highlights of a year gone by that saw India’s resurgence in world hockey.
If 2008 was a black spot in the history of Indian hockey, 2009 can be seen as a ray of hope for the game’s revival with the national teams producing mixed bag results to rekindle expectations of happier days ahead.
After failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics for the first time in eight decades last year, the eight-time Olympic champions India started its redemption journey in 2009 to show the world that the land, which produced greats like Dhyanchand, still has the skills to succeed and all they need is some fine-tuning and support from the administrators.
With support from the government and the ad-hoc body formed after the suspension of the erstwhile KPS Gill-backed Indian Hockey Federation, Indian men’s team started the year on a positive note under interim coach Harendra Singh, drawing 2-2 in an away Test series against Argentina.
The Indians continued their success story, finishing runners-up in the inaugural four-nation Punjab Gold Cup in Chandigarh which featured strong teams like Holland, the eventual winners, Spain and Germany.
India, thereafter, defeated New Zealand 2-0 in the four-Test away series and then followed it up with clinical 3-1 win over Malaysia in the final to register their fourth Azlan Shah title, a tournament which they won after a gap of 13 years.
Earlier, India had won the title in 1985, 1991 and in 1995.
But after the high came a low as needing an outright win to book a place in the semi-finals of the eighth Asia Cup in Kuantan, India squandered a two-goal lead to settle for a 2-2 draw against China and see their title defence go up in smoke.
In between, the game’s ad-hoc administrators’ search for a foreign coach finally ended with the appointment of Jose Brasa, who led the Spain women’s team to gold in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in May.
Off the turf, there was very little consistency in the game’s administration with the Suresh Kalmadi-led Indian Olympic Association controlling hockey affairs, which prompted the State associations to go up in arms against IOA’s stubborn attitude.
With pressure mounting from the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to constitute a democratically elected single body to run the game in the country or else lose the hosting right of next year’s World Cup and also participation rights in FIH events, the IOA finally formed Hockey India.
But even though the power struggle was going on at full swing as to who will take over the game’s administration in the country, Brasa went about his business of resurrecting the Indian team and took the national side to a number of exposure trips, that included a four-nation European and Canada tour.
But just before the European tour, the Indian team received a setback when first choice goalkeeper Baljit Singh suffered a career-threatening eye injury after he was struck by a golf ball during a national camp in Pune.
No sooner the incident took place, the newly-formed Hockey India and Sports Ministry pressed into action and sent the Chandigarh lad to the United States for treatment at the expense of the government.
On the ground, Indian men trounced Canada 6-0 in a seven-Test away series but the year ended on a disappointing note when India went down to Pakistan in the semi-finals of the Champions Challenge I in Salta, Argentina and lost the chance to qualify for next year’s Champions Trophy in Monchengladbach, Germany.
India, however, defeated hosts Argentina to win the bronze medal as New Zealand beat Pakistan to emerge champions.
India still has a chance to qualify for the Champions Trophy but for that they will have to finish within the top three in February 28-March 13 slated World Cup here.
On the women’s front, notwithstanding administrative issues and lack of assistance, the eves bid a splendid farewell to the year by booking their place in next year’s World Cup in Rosario, Argentina.
The Indian eves defeated formidable South Korea 3-2 to enter the final of the Asia Cup in Bangkok but lost to China in the title clash to finish second.
On the individual front, veteran striker Prabhjot Singh and Surinder Kaur found some recognition when they were selected in the FIH All Star squads.
While Prabhjot has found a place among world’s top 18 men players to be coached by Australian hockey legend Ric Charlesworth, Surinder has been named in the FIH All Star women’s team.
All in all, the year gone by has set things in motion for the resurgence of the national game and next year’s World Cup at home will provide an ideal platform for the eight time Olympic champions to earn back their place at the international stage.