As Rajasthan waited for the bus after what turned out to be their last game of the tournament,an ageing pot-bellied man sporting the team’s chartreuse t-shirt and a salt-and-pepper beard was lounging around on the steps at the Karnataka Hockey Stadium entrance.
The team had lost 11-0 to Madhya Pradesh State Hockey Academy in a Group E match,a result which after their 9-0 defeat to Air India on Monday,meant curtains. At the last edition in Bhopal also,they had crashed out in a similarly abject fashion.
And yet,the aforementioned gentleman,who looked like the coach,seemed rather cheerful,cracking jokes and backslapping team-mates. “I am not the coach. I am a player,” he clarified.
Bahadur Singh,47,played his first senior nationals in Bangalore,even briefly taking the field against Nagaland on the opening day. But how – it’s anybody’s guess.
Which is not to suggest a forty-something can’t play at this level,but a forty-something making his nationals “debut”,in an intensely physical game like hockey,is quite simply baffling.
Bahadur denied the request for an interview,but coach Mitranand Puniya insisted that the right-half’s exteriors might suggest otherwise,but he was fit enough to be in the team. But what was his motivation? Hell get a certificate that he played at the senior nationals level, Puniya said.
The response is symptomatic of a bigger problem that afflicts the tournament: it’s more about participation than competition. In a bid to project it as the biggest nationals ever and also perhaps to show that they are the de facto hockey body in the country organisers Hockey India have invited 36 teams from around the country. Quantity has been preferred over quality.
No wonder then that double-digit scores have been more of a norm than exception. On Tuesday itself,Rajasthans embarrassing 11-0 defeat looked rather respectable in front of Nagalands 16-0 surrender against Air India and even mildly competitive vis-à-vis the 20-0 annihilation of Kerala.
No hockey culture
One of the spin-offs of inviting so many teams is that sometimes a participating state doesn’t have a hockey culture and,therefore,not enough talent to even field a proper squad of 18.
In that scenario they rely on the outsiders those who want the nationals certificate that might help them in getting a job or a promotion.
In the Nagaland team that also crashed out on Tuesday after losing three matches,seven players were from Uttar Pradesh. And all of them from Lucknow Sports Hostel.
Its tough to make the UP squad,so we switched to Nagaland this year to get some experience at the national level. We played a few league games in Nagaland this year and we were in the team, said a Nagaland/UP player who didnt want to be identified.
But even the imports didnt help much,as the scoreline suggested they conceded 31 goals in three games,while scoring only three.
Meanwhile,Gurpreet Singh Air Indias custodian who mostly relaxed in the goalpost as if it were a dugout and watched the match being played almost entirely in Nagaland’s half might concur that admitting fewer weak teams in the nationals would keep him on his toes more often.
Former India captain Viren Rasquinha,who watched the Air India game,agreed that the format should be re-jigged to make it more competitive throughout. There should be some checks and balances so that the sides that play the nationals do not have a yawning gap among them. I cant really say off the top of my head but maybe there could be regional qualifiers or some other system. Hockey India needs to sit down and come up with something else,because this format is not working, he said.
When told about a 47-year-old playing in the tournament,Rasquinha just smiled.
Bahadur is gone,but one question remains: Was he the oldest player at nationals? With a few teams still trickling in,the answer can’t be a definite yes.