Hockey hits a high in Hyderabad after a long break

The Astro-turf at Secunderabad’s South Central Railway Sports Complex, all resplendent in blue bordered with bright white markings, gave the venue a world-class feel.

Hyderabad: It was a veritable feast but there weren’t many to partake of the delights. Top-notch hockey returned to the twin cities after perhaps a decade, but sadly attendance by locals to watch the high-octane action wasn’t very encouraging, if one went by the numbers.

Nonetheless, the recently held Gooncha 57 Nehru senior hockey tournament, moving out of its native Delhi for the first time, ticked almost all the boxes when it came to showcasing the game of sticks and wits. The Astro-turf at Secunderabad’s South Central Railway Sports Complex, all resplendent in blue bordered with bright white markings, gave the venue a world-class feel.

A national hockey camp on at the time would have robbed the event of some of the game’s elite players as did the Junior World Cup in Bhubaneshwar that began exactly a day after the above event ended. Some of the sport’s big teams among others added sheen though viz., Indian Railways, Army XI, Indian Air Force, Indian Navy, Punjab & Sind Bank, Punjab National Bank, South Central Railway, Canara Bank, Indian Oil, ONGC, Mumbai XI, Tamil Nadu XI, Telangana XI, CAG XI, MP Hockey Academy, Bhopal and Air India.

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Matches were mostly played under an overcast sky, some of them sprinkled with the occasional showers. Since the turf requires period watering, nature’s interventions proved to be no hindrance but may have helped ease the workload of the ground staff, who otherwise release the spray from jets situated around the playing area.

The quarter-finalists were divided into two pools of four teams each and played in a super league. Punjab National Bank, Indian Navy, Indian Railways, also referred to as Railway Sports Promotion Board (RSPB) and Indian Oil advanced to the semi-finals.

If momentum was to carry the day, RSPB seemed favourite for the title, coming as it did on the back of two recent triumphs in the Lal Bahadur Shastri and Surjit tournaments in Delhi and Jalandhar respectively.

Indian Oil, packed with internationals, coached by legends Deepak Thakur and Devesh Chauhan, both Olympians and Arjuna awardees, proved to be a cut above the rest. In the final, it defeated RSPB to lift the Inder Mohan Kapur Nehru senior winner’s gold cup and take Rs. 4 lakhs as cash prize.

Skipper Vickram Kanth, shown a yellow card, refused to be upset when leading the oil men to the crown. The rail men settled for the silver cup and Rs. 2 lakhs.

Roshan Minz of Indian Oil was adjudged player of the final. His teammate Talwinder Singh was declared Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the tournament and took home a Benelli Imperiale 400 BS6 Classic motorbike. The choice for the latter citation defied logic on some crucial counts and could certainly have been more objective.

All over the world, the number of goals separates winners from losers in almost every sport. Finding the net through a maze of defenders and their legs carries the greatest degree of difficulty, especially in hockey. Two players—Pardeep Singh of RSPB and Jugraj Singh of Indian Navy–scored half a dozen goals each. Ironically neither figured in the honours list.

Interestingly, four of the Indian Railways players were sourced from host South Central Railway, including the runner-up side’s skipper Sayyad Niyaz Rahim. The other three elevated to the national team were Seshe Gowda, Mukul Sharma and Ajit Kumar Pandey. Another welcome innovation in the RSPB squad was the induction of a lady physio, Vemuri Harini, in what would otherwise have been an all-male set-up.

Another reason for the smooth conduct of the tournament was the active presence and enthusiastic involvement of hockey stalwarts from Hyderabad. Adorning the arena were Aloysius Edwards, India’s goal-keeper at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Olympics. Siblings Alphonse and David Jude Absolom, both international umpires, were always at hand to tackle any aspect of the event’s conduct.

Incidentally, Alphonse and Jude had officiated in the India-Pakistan and India-Netherlands hockey Test series staged in the Twin Cities years ago. Jude even installed the all-weather, all-colour electronic giant screen that beamed all the key features of matches through the tournament.

The Nehru hockey tournament has a rich legacy with all-time greats of the game such as Ajit Pal Singh, Zafar Iqbal, Dhanraj Pillay and Pargat Singh having honed their skills during the junior and senior versions. Manpreet Singh, India’s bronze medal winning squad’s captain at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, also earned his spurs in this prestigious event, which dates back to 1964.

The tournament and its governing trust were instituted by Inder Mohan Kapur, founder of the Gooncha group, to honour the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.  It was therefore fitting that the prizes at the closing ceremony were given away by his progeny–Subhash Kapur and Yash Bharwani.

(A. Joseph Antony was on Sony TV’s commentary panel for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Euro 2020, Copa America 2021 and Tokyo Olympics 2020. The author of ‘My way—The biography of M.L. Jaisimha’ (Apple Books, Amazon), he was a Senior Assistant Editor with The Hindu in Hyderabad.)

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