One match makes us rejoice and plan dinners with strangers. Another kills our appetite. What is it about sport that affects us in such extreme ways?
Thursday night was a gloomy one. India lost to Spain in the hockey World Cup. The sport had seen a revival in the past few days, thanks to India’s win over Pakistan in the first match. After that, they lost to Australia. No problem. It was expected. Australia defeated South Africa 12-0. India only lost 5-2.
But against Spain we were expected to win. The discerning reminded us that Spain were the No. 3 team in the world, nine places above India. We lowered our expectations. But when Jose Brasa, India’s Spanish coach, said that the team was “going upar” and Spain did not worry him, our hopes went ‘upar’ again.
The first sign of trouble came even before the match began. India were warming up. The water sprinklers came on and sent arcs of mist and spray flying to all corners of the field. The 16,000-capacity Dhyan Chand stadium roared.
A couple of Indian players waved back at the stands. It was not terribly wrong of them to do so, but it revealed a small wavering of focus. Old rule. Never play to the gallery before a match. Finish the job and wave all you want.
Spain were relentless. They were hungry. They too had to win their second match in the tournament to keep their hopes alive. They threw themselves at India. The Indian defenders—Sandeep Singh, Bharat Chhikara and Dhananjay Mahadik—could offer only token resistance to the Spanish forwards. India’s own strikers were easily dispossessed or thwarted by the fast and big Spaniards. Maybe it is all down to size against European teams. They simply are bigger and faster. Whatever chances India had were through the six penalty corners that they received. Even there, they could only convert one.
In the press conference afterwards Coach Brasa said that the main reason for the defeat was India’s lack of experience. He is right in a way because India played only two hastily arranged practice matches before the tournament. That said, the Indian players have to work on fundamentals like speed and fitness to have a better chance against European teams. That cannot be denied.
The worst part of such a defeat, worse even than personal despondency, is the return of the naysayers. They get a chance to open their traps again. Most would not be able to run a round of a hockey field but they will laugh off those who do much more. There was such a specimen in the press conference on Thursday. He started with a rudely put question to Indian captain Rajpal Singh. Soon the two were verbally sparring, although Rajpal was careful to not raise his voice. At one point he seemed to suggest to the journalist that since he seemed so wise, why didn’t he step on the field and try his theories out. The journalist said, “Jo karna hain, aap ko karna hain. Hum kya karenge?” Rajpal said, “Aap mein dum bhi nahin hain kuch karne ka.”
This is how it always is in India. We eulogise, then we condemn. There is never a balanced view of things. But if hockey is to flourish, the last thing it needs is fickle fans. If you want to back the team, back it through ups and downs. If not, well, it was nice to meet you.