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"Tu Kyon Bhaag Raha Hain, Ball ko Bhaga!"

I think it’s really hard writing about something that brings up a wide spectrum of emotions. It’s like trying to describe your first love. But I'm gonna try anyway.

I discovered my first love in Grade 3. Like every day, I was walking across my school ground, when I noticed something that had gone unnoticed for the past 5 years. Hockey practise was in session, and in that moment I was sure I wanted to join. I rushed home that day to talk my parents into letting me play this sport. I don’t remember their response, but I’m sure it was less than lukewarm. My brother had already put my parents through the rigmarole of buying shoes, a stick and ball and dropping him to practise, only to discover a week later, that he was, as suspected, a lazy lump, and hockey could not be played while lying curled up in bed.

Anyway, I managed to convince my parents into letting me join. The coach had been my mom’s student, and an Olympian. She recognized that I was quite energetic and fast, so she made me ‘Left-Out’. After a few weeks spent ‘Rolling’ and ‘Tapping’, we (my best friend Lakshmi had also been convinced to join) graduated to the very glamorous ‘Hitting-Stopping’. Hockey practise always started with 2 rounds around the ground, something that we complained about for the 6 years that we played. Funnily enough, even years later, it still remained 2 rounds.

I remember the first time we were handed our school colours. The junior team was awarded the faded, slightly smelly, old colours of the senior team. The few years that followed are blurred together in my memory. Being a competitive swimmer too, my schedule included hockey before school, and swimming after school- until bedtime.

When the seniors passed out and we stepped into their studs, the matches were all suddenly about the ‘school name’. I don’t know how that figured in our wins or losses, but there was a vague pride associated with the bright new colours, very short mini skirts, shiny new shin pads and beaten down sticks. We always entered the ground in a single file, shot into the goal, and then formed a circle in the D and prayed.

In Grade 9, our school team finally won against St. Anne’s, our rivals. It was the last year that we could play, my classmates and I. This was the most bittersweet hockey year for me. After leading my team to this victory, I was dismayed to find that half the team did not want to cancel their holiday plans to play at State levels. We played and reached the finals with a team consisting of 5 subs, and 5 permanent players. We played States with a 10 man team. It’s probably the first time in my life I really understood the difference between an individual sport and a team sport. Even our coach, who meant the world to us, did not come for the meet. But the great part about being young is that our world didn’t crash around us- as I imagine now it could have.

Shiroor was an amazing trip with my teammates, who remain my best friends to this day. The terrible bus ride, the American chiwda, our dormitory and our pepping each other for the matches of our life are some of the memories we made when we weren’t sitting in the loo with loosies from the miserable food.

When we got back, our team was fractured and needed repair. But as they say, when it rains, it pours. Within the next few months our coach had upped and left, and to add to the insult, the replacement teacher was rumoured to be the brother of a school peon, who I suspected of stealing my trackpants. A few months later during a ‘House Match’ [The entire school was divided into 4 houses, so House Matches meant that every House had 2 or 3 school team players, and the remaining 8 or 9 were basketball players, random assorted friends of players and prefects who were vigorously trained during PT period and lunch breaks and were applauded for even touching a ball with the right end of the stick during a match. Of course the player who showed everyone up was my friend who surprised us all by scoring a goal during the match. Unfortunately she had made a run for her own goal, and her defenders were too stumped to react and stop her]. I tripped on a huge stone in the ground and sustained a 50% ligament tear, which the doctor promptly assured me, would never heal fully.

I think I felt really resentful towards hockey then. I did not forgive myself for choosing it over swimming, and so I shut it out of my mind completely. It was almost a silent pact between us, and we never played again, and rarely brought it up.

We did watch Chak De and the World Cup together, but I really couldn’t decide which performance was more abysmal and torturous- Shah Rukh’s as a hockey coach or our team’s.
And so, when my company took on a hockey tournament, it had been years since I had anything to do with the sport. I signed up to work on the event, and so began Round 2 of my tryst with our so called National Sport.

I have always maintained that this was a beautiful sport, fast and graceful. I had struggled for a ticket to watch the India-Pak match during the CWG, and had been driven out of my mind with the inane, ignorant commentary kept up by neighbour about the rules of the game. It’s not called a “HOCKEY” it’s called a STICK for God’s sake!!! So I spent the first few days of the event watching every match, marvelling at every move and snorting snidely at every bad pass. I sat in the VIP stand beside the officials and selectors and enjoyed the action, at a distance.

By Day 3, I could not resist the urge any longer, so I picked up a stick. I was so afraid that I would not be able to stop a single ball, and I would make a complete fool of myself, that I waited until the ground was nearly empty and dark, before I ventured onto the turf. As I jogged down the field, I automatically veered to the left, and when I reached the D top, I took the shot. I missed the goal by miles, and I was quite embarrassed because I used to be able to take that shot in my sleep. I took the same narrow angle shot over and over until I finally nailed it. The satisfaction of hearing the ball slam into the corner of the goalpost made me forget my apprehension completely. I moved on to taking penalty strokes. I was quite good at it in school, but 7 years later, the ball struggled to reach the goal line, and I pulled my thigh muscles so badly that I could barely climb into bed that night.

As a kid, I had not realised how physically demanding a sport hockey is. You will never see an international player sporting a paunch like Bhajji. Especially on astro turf, half the game is determined by your speed and stamina. Which I score zero at right now, so it delayed my plans of being the comeback queen of the event. I played anyway, and even learnt the reverse stick shot which had eluded me my entire hockey playing life. Something that had not changed at all was the pain of a ball hitting your shin. It was just the same, the dull, throbbing pain, and the bruise that is still with me as a souvenior. I also picked up the new sweeping passes that seem to be the rage right now, but by the end of all this I could barely move.

So I took up another hobby.
Photography was something I had only ever been mildly interested in so far. And then too I preferred being in front of the lens rather than behind. But it was different here. I seemed to be automatically good at it, only because I understood the game and I could foresee the move – which gave me time to adjust the settings. I ran all over the ground taking pictures that day, I even climbed up a high viewing tower to get the bird’s eye photos. And I am so proud to say that a couple of my clicks were printed in some of the newspapers.

With all this to entertain me, the event went by quite fast. Maharashtra crashed out in the Quarters, leaving me disheartened. I had watched every game of theirs and even knew the players, so it was disappointing not to have anyone to cheer on in the Finals. But even then, I enjoyed the closely fought Finals immensely, because it gave me a chance to see the new penalty shootout rule - which has replaced strokes [One attacker must start from the 25 yard line and beat the goalkeeper within 8 seconds].

I don’t know whether I have rediscovered a lost love, or if I’ve fallen in all love over again with a game that’s changed so much, but is yet the same. Maybe this battle between Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation is a good thing because the sport needs to be revived, and the players treated with more respect, and most importantly, money needs to flow in, which may happen faster now that there is competition, rather than one sleepy, despotic body doing everything it can to sink a barely floating ship. Of course, that is assuming that the players are not made to bear the brunt of the battle, and are instead enticed to choose sides by offering better pay, brighter contracts and more facilities.

NOTE: But I suppose that’s quite unlikely in a country where majority of the people think that the way to keep up the “pride of the nation” is to withdraw from the Olympics because of the Dow contract. Because withdrawing from the event will make a huge difference to the victims of the tragedy, who have already been shunned for years together; because the pride of the nation is paid for by the athletes that have dedicated their entire lives to prepare for biggest sporting extravaganza of the world. And because India, as a nation, wins so many medals at the Olympics that our absence will be mourned by the entire sporting community. So who are the biggest gainers and losers here?


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