The Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium and its enduring love with hockey

More than the epic matches, strong rivalries among teams and players, it’s the spectators’ love for the National sport that has played a huge part in hockey’s popularity in this part of the region

June 22, 2023 10:05 pm | Updated 10:05 pm IST

Smooth surface: A view of the then newly laid artificial turf prior to the 1995 SAF Games.

Smooth surface: A view of the then newly laid artificial turf prior to the 1995 SAF Games. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium situated in the centre of Chennai city in Egmore holds a special place in the hearts of hockey fans, players, and officials alike.

Earlier called the Corporation Stadium, which used to have hockey gravel ground, tennis courts, basketball and volleyball, it was rebuilt and renamed as the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium.

Constructed for the SAF Games in 1995, the complex now has hockey (artificial turf), tennis and volleyball.

The stadium attained international fame for hosting quite a few international hockey matches — like the SAF Games (1995), two editions of the Champions Trophy (1996 & 2005), an Asia Cup (2007), the India-Pakistan series (1999) and the India-Belgium series (2008). It has also been the venue for numerous domestic tournaments including the MCC-Murugappa All India Gold Cup and innumerable Chennai Hockey Association league matches.

Star attraction: India’s Dhanraj Pillay moves past Pakistan’s Naveed Alam in the SAF Games final which India won 5-2. on December 26, 1995.

Star attraction: India’s Dhanraj Pillay moves past Pakistan’s Naveed Alam in the SAF Games final which India won 5-2. on December 26, 1995. | Photo Credit: K. GAJENDRAN

More than the epic matches, strong rivalries among teams and players, it’s the spectators’ love for the National sport that has played a huge part in hockey’s popularity in this part of the region.

“When we played for the senior Tamil Nadu team or the Railways team, be it practice or tournaments, there would always be a set of elderly people who used to come to watch us. They were hardcore fans who used to honour players if they played well and would not hesitate to criticise if they played badly. It was an ambience we enjoyed,” says C.R. Kumar, coach of the Indian junior men’s team which won the Asia Cup recently.

The best part, according to former national captain V. Baskaran — who was part of the committee entrusted in laying the artificial turf along with another Olympian Munir Sait among others for the SAF Games — has been the spectators who continue to turn out in huge numbers for the finals of both domestic and International tournaments.

Packed to the rafters: Spectators support has always been a feature of matches at this venue, like this scene from 1996 Champions Trophy on December 13, 1996.

Packed to the rafters: Spectators support has always been a feature of matches at this venue, like this scene from 1996 Champions Trophy on December 13, 1996. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

“The crowd used to be full every time we hosted an international tournament, or a domestic tournament or a local league. The reason was that the stadium was close to areas that have a history of supporting hockey. The areas like Thousand Lights, Vepery, Triplicane, Royapettah and Mylapore all had hockey teams,” says Baskaran.

Mohammed Riaz, former India skipper, recalls the time when there was a mild interruption during the SAF Games hockey final between India and Pakistan — where he was one of the players — because of overcrowding. “The fencing broke as there were too many people. The final was stopped for around 10 minutes.”

Highlighting the knowledge of the fans, Riaz said they would reel out particular team line-up without the list in their hands. “The proximity of the stadium to top-class hotels, and railway station was one the reasons for many people including senior citizens turning up,” he says. Riaz recalls how an extra gallery was put up to accommodate more people during the 1999 India-Pakistan series in Chennai and the 1996 Champions Trophy, an aspect that took the then Netherlands coach Roelant Oltmans by surprise.

Holland's Van Mijk Remco about to beat the German goalkeeper, Kowalczek Nils, for the winning goal in the Kuber-Champions Trophy hockey tournament Jin Chennai on Monday. Holland defeated Germany, 2-1, in this hotly contested match.

Holland's Van Mijk Remco about to beat the German goalkeeper, Kowalczek Nils, for the winning goal in the Kuber-Champions Trophy hockey tournament Jin Chennai on Monday. Holland defeated Germany, 2-1, in this hotly contested match. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

It was as one such spectator that S. Karthi, one of the current forwards in the Indian men’s team, watched players such as P.R. Sreejesh and S.V. Sunil in action. “I was a 13-year-old student of Sports Hostel of YMCA (Chennai). I was excited seeing them play for the first time at the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup. The crowd was excited and so was I,” says the 21-year-old, who has secured a job with Income Tax.

The turf has seen world class players of the calibre of Shahbaz Khan, Tahir Zaman (both Pakistan), Stephen Veen (Australia), Teun de Nooijer (Netherlands) and Dhanraj Pillay (India), among others. It is needless to say that the two Champions Trophy editions and the Asia Cup drew a near-full house. When India defeated South Korea to lift the Asia Cup, the cheers from a packed stadium showed Indians’ love with hockey remained intact.

For young players from the districts used to playing on grass and gravel, the joy they felt on entering the stadium was unrivalled to say the least.

Vinod Rayer first came here in 1999 for the ‘Catch them young’ programme from Tiruchi and since then has played inter-Sports hostel tournaments, the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup and the CHA league matches.

Sukhjeet Singh (right) of  Punjab National Bank and Rajat Sharma of Indian Navy in action during the 93rd All India  MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup hockey tournament at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai on September 07, 2019.

Sukhjeet Singh (right) of Punjab National Bank and Rajat Sharma of Indian Navy in action during the 93rd All India MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup hockey tournament at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai on September 07, 2019. | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

“When I first played on the artificial turf, I felt really really good. Since then whenever I play here, I get goosebumps. There is a sense of happiness and fulfillment I get which I don’t get from anywhere else,” says the 37-year-old Tamil Nadu player, now an assistant manager with Indian Overseas Bank (Chennai).

Seventytwo-year-old V.J. Philips, a World Cup gold medallist, feels that Hockey Unit of Tamil Nadu (HUTN) hasn’t recognised the Olympic and World Cup medallists, but acknowledges that the advent of the artificial turf saw a spurt in youngsters taking up the sport. “There have been a lot of activities after 1994. Players have got better, but a lot of work remains to be done at the grassroots level,” he says.

Work on relaying the artificial turf, in time for the Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament, in progress at the stadium.

Work on relaying the artificial turf, in time for the Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament, in progress at the stadium. | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

With the turf set to be relaid by mid-July for the Asian Champions Trophy — scheduled from August 3 to 12 — there is bound to be a revival of the sport in the city.

The Government of Tamil Nadu is planning to host a lot of international events in the future and is keen on improving the infrastructure in districts.

“I believe fans will throng the stadium for the Asian Champions Trophy. There will be people from other districts flocking here. Moreover, HUTN is doing a major rehaul in terms of seating arrangements for the spectators and dressing rooms, so we can expect good times for the sport,” adds Kumar.

For HUTN and the Government of Tamil Nadu, the work doesn’t start and end with the Asian Champions Trophy. Instead, they should utilise the magnificent facility of the renovated Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium to kickstart a renaissance.

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