Hockey has a rich history in India. It was first introduced to the country by British servicemen in the 19th century, with clubs being formed soon after in Calcutta in 1885. Since then, hockey has undoubtedly entrenched itself as one of India’s most popular sports.
The national team’s early success catapulted hockey’s status as the national sport of India. Colloquially, at the very least, the sport was universally embraced and generally accepted as the official sport of the country.
Yes, it even beat the popularity of cricket, also closely associated with India, and football, the most popular sport on the planet. But is hockey really the national sport of India? The answer may not be as simple as you’d think.
The Official Word = Not Official
Most people in India have traditionally seen hockey as the de facto official national sport. However, in 2012, a simple question from an Indian schoolgirl changed the situation entirely.
Aishwarya Parashar, a 10-year old girl from Lucknow, asked for clarification on the official sport of the country through the Right to Information Act. In response, the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports declared that there is no official order that states hockey is the national sport.
SPS Tomar, the undersecretary of the organization, explained it was the national game in ‘general parlance’ and not more than that. So why do most Indians see hockey as the national sport?
National Team Success
Modern-day hockey is unpredictable. Even the experts can’t pinpoint a winner or predict the score before the whistle blows. Asian betting markets show that for this reason, hockey retains its strong popularity amongst spectators. If you were a betting man from the 20s to the 50s, however, you’d be putting your money on India every single time.
The Indian men’s national team is arguably the most successful in history. It has the most Olympic Gold Medals of all time, including six straight from 1928 to 1956. During their first title run, the team didn’t concede a single goal. In 1936, they obliterated Nazi Germany’s team by a score of 8-1.
The team continued its success, albeit without the early dominance. India won gold again in 1964, following it with another in 1980. In addition to gold, the team also has 1 silver and 2 bronze medals under their belt. This gives India the impressive accolade of leading the Olympic medal tally, with a total of 11. India has also made its mark on the World Cup stage, reaching the final twice, and beating Pakistan in 1975 to win it all.
Winning is a good explanatory factor for a sport or team’s popularity. If you capture the public’s imagination through success, a style of play, and medals and trophies, the fans will follow. And there’s no doubt the Indian national team was the most successful and celebrated team for several decades.
The Modern Team
Recent years haven’t been quite as successful, with teams from Europe and the Southern Hemisphere developing to claim their place at the top alongside traditional powerhouses like India and Pakistan.
Nevertheless, India has consistently retained its spot as one of the best hockey teams on the planet. It currently ranks fourth in the world according to official FIH rankings, just behind Belgium, Australia, and the Netherlands. The women’s team has also claimed its spot as one of the best, currently sitting at ninth.
While the teams aren’t dominant, they’re still competitive. The dream of a World Cup or Olympic medal is very much realistic. While Indians know that mimicking the dominance of the early years will be difficult, the thought of reaching the pinnacle once more keeps fans coming back to stadiums.
The ‘Indian Dribble’
India’s reputation in hockey is second to none. They didn’t just win, either. They did so in style. The so-called ‘Indian dribble’ is the technique of pushing the hockey ball from one side to the other very quickly, making it very difficult for defenders on the opposing team. It’s difficult to steal the ball, increases the number of passing options for the player, and requires teams to change their defensive structures as a result.
The Indian national team pioneered this style of play in the 1950s, which contributed to the country’s domination on the international stage. Considered an innovative style and not widely adopted in its early days, it is now part and parcel of even the youth player’s technical repertoire.
Even though the national teams aren’t what they used to be, Indians are still very much proud of their heritage in hockey. They delivered mesmerizing wins for several decades, introduced techniques still used today, and played with a style never seen before. Even though hockey isn’t the ‘official’ national sport, it still holds a very special place in the heart of every Indian sports fan.