It’s hard to believe that a land which once produced some of the best hockey players in the country does not even have one ground dedicated to the game. The administrators cite lack of funds and opposition from some quarters as the reasons for this. The absence of an astroturf, a dearth of sponsors and lukewarm interest of local clubs are killing the game in a state which, back in the 1940s and 1950s, had strong teams in Calcutta Customs and Port Commissioners in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bengal-Nagpur Railway in Kharagpur. Bengal went on to clinch the 1952 national hockey championship which was staged in this city. Later, Mohun Bagan made its mark in the game too. But if you ask a common man if he knows Bagan for its hockey, he’ll think you are daft. Over the years, Bengal has produced legends like Pat Jansen, Leslie Claudius, Keshav Dutt, Gurbaksh Singh, Joginder Singh, Inam-ur-Rehman and Thoiba Singh, among others. Even the first hockey association in India formed in 1908 was the Bengal Hockey Association. Also, the first Indian team for the Olympics in 1928 (Amsterdam) was selected here after the nationals of the same year. Twenty-seven Olympic gold medals, two silver medals and one bronze is what Bengal hockey can still show as its achievement. But that is very much a thing of the past. Olympic gold medallist Gurbux Singh said the absence of a stadium and an astroturf were the biggest hindrances in grooming local talent. “Unless we have a stadium of our own, where only hockey is played, it is very difficult to play against other top teams of the country,” Gurbux Singh, a member of the team that won the gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and joint captain of the team that won the bronze in Mexico City four years later, told IANS.
The hockey legend also blamed the lack of sponsors for the decline. “Funds are also a huge problem. We need a large sum of money to build a stadium and at the moment we do not have so much money. You don’t see many sponsors for hockey. You will see them spending money on cricket and football, but not hockey,” he lamented. Gurbux Singh also regretted that no teams from West Bengal were participating in the Hockey India League (HIL). “It hurts me that there’s no team from West Bengal to play in the HIL. When they first started the league, the organisers had asked me if we would be interested in having a team. But I could not give them a stadium where they can play,” Gurbux Singh said. Another Olympian, who was part of the team that clinched the coveted gold in the 1980 Moscow Games, Bir Bahadur Chettri, echoed similar sentiments.” It saddens me that there’s no team from the state in the HIL; I see Delhi, Mumbai even Ranchi, but where is Kolkata?” Chettri, who did duty under the bar in Moscow, looked back fondly at the glorious past of Bengal hockey. “There was a time when we used to go out and play in other states. We were one of the most feared teams. Nowadays people don’t even know that West Bengal plays hockey. To help hockey here, sponsors should come forward.”
The Olympian also believed that the astroturf at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) ground, where the historic and prestigious Beighton Cup was recently played, was not up to international standards. “The astroturf at SAI is not of good quality. Plus there are no stadiums here, no supporters to cheer them on, so it becomes difficult for players to get the motivation to do well.” Chettri added the game should be spread in schools and colleges and the association should try to hold “bigger” tournaments. Bengal Hockey Association vice president Gopi Nath Ghose rued that while the BHA has over the years explored all possibilities to set up a ground, the plans have somehow always failed to see the light of the day. “We explored all possibilities. We thought of having the astroturf at the (Calcutta) Rangers (Club) ground but there were problems from the military. “The state government and the BHA also had signed a memorandum of understanding in 2010 that helped us get possession of four and a half acres of land inside Salt Lake Stadium, but till now no work was possible,” Ghose said. “There was also talk of setting the astroturf at Rabindra Sarovar ground, but then the footballers went up in rebellion. It’s a shame that we still do not have a ground,” Ghose added. (Debdoot Das can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)