x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Action is needed off the pitch for hockey to recover some lustre

To many hockey still exists like some amateur university sport, or one played predominantly by college-going women. Even in the subcontinent itself it is no longer enjoyed as a sport.

Like the rest of the competitors in hockey, Seungil Lee, left, and South Korea are chasing Billy Bakker and his Netherlands' teammates, along with the Australia team, as those two nations have become the world powers in the sport.
Like the rest of the competitors in hockey, Seungil Lee, left, and South Korea are chasing Billy Bakker and his Netherlands' teammates, along with the Australia team, as those two nations have become the world powers in the sport.

What hockey really needs is an epic scandal, a real zinger involving a fixed match, or wholesale positive dope tests after a medal match.

Even just a full-out ruckus on the turf with hockey sticks hurled around, jaws rearranged, bones broken, blood spilt, will do.

Less messy and with greater potential mileage (though inestimably more boring) could be a diabolical split down the middle of the hockey world over the video referral system.

It needs something because how else does one of the most established Olympic sports (first inducted in 1908 if you're asking and present at every single one since except 1912 and 1924) get the attention that it really needs and deserves?

London 2012 has actually had a pretty competitive programme across the two groups so far; until the final group games began yesterday as many as seven teams were in the running for the semi-finals, four from Europe and two from Asia (and Australia).

Australia and the Netherlands have been easily the best sides and on occasions Australia in particular have played on another, more frightening level to the others (as they did beating Pakistan 7-0, South Africa 6-0 and Spain 5-0).

But there have been slips and, in the sides behind them, greater parity.

And the hockey has been good to watch, too, which is precisely the point and has always been the point.

By its very nature - a large, fast playing area, sticks and a small ball, rules designed to not give defenders benefit of doubt - hockey very rarely offers the kind of dull spectacle football can every so often. Even with all the quite fundamental shifts the game has undergone, the different styles it is played in, at heart it remains a ball sport in which the whatever-you-score-we'll-score-one-more style still generally trumps the we'll-stop-you-scoring-first ideal.

All that, though, has hardly made any difference before, during and probably even after London 2012 to hockey's vanishing status.

That indifference has been best summed up by the kind of generic, one commentator-fits-all-sport broadcast of the matches, where commentators have been explaining the game and its most basic rules to viewers as if it is some kind of new, novelty sport just introduced to the Olympics.

Outside of India and Pakistan, has anyone really paid too much attention to the event?

To much of that world, hockey still exists like some amateur university sport, or one played predominantly by college-going women.

Even in the subcontinent itself it is no longer enjoyed as a sport - the national sport no less - as much as it is treated as some kind of a cause.

It needs to be saved, it needs to be supported, it needs to be revived, it needs an Indian Premier League-style boost, it needs to be killed off entirely before it is born again.

As a Pakistani, watching it is impossible now without a degree of guilt that your own growing lack of interest has somehow contributed to the continuing downfall of the sport.

Not too much guilt though, especially if you ask what the International Hockey Federation (FIH) has done to promote a sport which should be doing a pretty good job of selling itself?

Well, nearly 40 years ago they switched the playing surface from natural grass to synthetic grass.

In parts of India and Pakistan that still rankles, for it quelled their style of play and dominance, but that is too long ago to matter. If India and Pakistan ran their games with any competence, their teams would have adjusted long ago.

The real question that should be asked about that change is whether it achieved everything the administrators sought.

Did it make the game more attractive? Well, attractiveness is a subjective and faddish idea. The common lament that India and Pakistan played a more beautiful game than the Europeans and Australia do now is not only irrelevant but questionable, given how exhilarating it is to watch Australia and Holland.

The other aim was to make hockey more spectator-friendly and pull in more fans.

Look around you administrators of hockey: the sport's never been less popular. Even back in the mid-1970s, well before India had become the dream destination for sports marketers and as Pakistan was undergoing its own unique commercialisation of sport, it should have been obvious that hockey's health relied fundamentally on its health on the subcontinent.

To make the sport less popular there would be to strangle it altogether.

And since then? More sides have become better at it, if that is to be accepted as some oblique confirmation of a global governing body's administration, but fewer people know about it and fewer people care.

Australia will probably win gold here, which is just as well because in this medal-dry Olympics for them, it will at least make some news somewhere.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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