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What took Nobbs so long to realise we weren't world class?
The defeat by Belgium was the ultimate humiliation. Though macho pride prevented an aging former Olympic gold medalist from admitting as much, his wife told this writer the morning after that he spent a sleepless night. There must have been many others who shared the nightmarish experience of the proud man from a generation of hockey stars now in the autumn of their lives.
The promise which the Michael Nobbs coached Indian hockey team showed in the New Delhi qualifier proved far too exaggerated, as its dismal performance was to show in the London Olympics - so embarrassingly dismal that it left India, a country with a history of winning eight Olympic gold medals, struggling to avoid ending last of the 12 teams in the competition.
So what went wrong? Nobbs in one of his statement from London had said that there were few world class players in the Indian team. Right he no doubt was. But it took him so long to arrive at that assessment? As a longtime hockey watcher, yours truly has no hesitation in stating that, barring one or two, the majority of players who wore the India colours on the blue hockey pitch at London could hardly have found a place in any leading state or club team of a few decades ago. Their calibre is far below that of players of earlier generations of Indian players. Ask the Harbinders, the Harcharans, the Ajitpals, the Balbirs, the Inams, the Ashok Kumars, the Zafar Iqbals and their likes. If they have not openly said as much it's only because they did not wish to hurt the morale of the present Indian team.
So ordinary is the calibre of the present generation of players that you can't imagine them playing for teams like Punjab, Bombay, Bhopal or Uttar Pradesh, Railways, Services, Railways, Indian Airlines or the Combined Universities of old. Not even some leading club teams of earlier years would have been eager to recruit them. Hockey talent had been steadily been scarcer and scarcer, and the sources from where it emerged kept drying up. Yet those who administered the game were not alarmed enough to do something about it.
What's worse, two rival bodies, claiming to control Indian hockey, added to the confusion. At least two leading players of the team which did duty in London, returned to the 'fold' intimidated with career-threatening suspensions. On the heels of the qualifier came the World Series Hockey supported by the Indian Hockey Federation, a 'rebel' competition which the selectors of Hockey India, entrusted with the task of choosing the players for London, chose to ig nore. Shamelfully, the warring bodies have not been able to rise above their differences.
For all the preparations that Nobbs' players made in the run-up to London they looked stragglers blundering their way from one match to another. This is the worst finish by an Indian team in Olympic hockey, though India has experienced the humiliation of a last place finish in a World Cup. That was in the 1986 World Cup in England. The future seems bleak unless a miracle takes place somehow.
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