Until the 1980s, hockey was the top draw among celebrities for exhibition sports fixtures. The sport’s free fall thereafter and the rise of cricket following the 1983 World Cup win changed everything – almost permanently.
Since India’s last Olympic hockey gold in a depleted field at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the game has time and again drawn on the support of its glorious past to garner support. Such is the impact of that extraordinary run of eight gold medals that even today, the next best record in that respect at the Games is three short of India's performance – the Netherlands have five men's hockey golds.
Why did India lose its supremacy? There are, of course, many reasons for this, but a major one must surely be the constant changes in the rules of the game effected by the FIH, whose members found ways to undermine the skilful play that both India and Pakistan were famous for. Instead, the new rules put a premium on power play, with force, aerial sallies and long hard hits becoming more effective than stick-work.
Perhaps the biggest example of this is the abolition of the offside rule. So, while a team had to work the ball up the field earlier, involving dribbling, dodging and running, now a long ball from the back can find a forward lurking near the opponent's goal without being declared offside.
Or take what used to be called the long corner, which is not actually a corner anymore. Now, every time the ball crosses the baseline off a defender’s stick, the attacking team gets to restart the game, not from the corner flag, but from the 23-yard line.
Overhead shots at goal
It's a common sight nowadays to see a goal being scored like a forehead stroke in tennis. That's because a player is now allowed to hit an aerial ball provided no other player is within five yards. So, the long air-borne forward pass or scoop can now end with a legitimate attempt at goal. Another victory for power over skill.
India's slide began from the time the playing surface was switched from natural to artificial grass. Teams like Belgium, who have made tremendous progress over the last 24 months, largely started playing serious hockey directly on astroturf. They never had to unlearn playing on natural grass, which has worked in their favour.Physiologically tall and strong, Europeans and Australians are better suited to the speed game on astro turf. They often win games against the Indians by running them out of breath. India and Pakistan are both good on counter attacks, but the gas in the tank lasts longer for the other teams.
The new rules
Here then are the 11 ways in which the game of hockey has changed from the time India used to be on top, all of them thanks to new rules powered by the countries that are on top today.
- It’s a 60-minute game now, split into four quarters of 15 minutes each. The 70-minute game of two halves is history. This has been done to keep the game’s pace up and allow the teams two extra breaks to strategise and re-energise. In other words, more opportunities for going at it hammer and tongs.
- When a knockout game ends in a deadlock, the match doesn’t go into extra time. It straightaway goes into the shootouts. No chance for skills winning over energy.
- Talking about shootouts, these days it’s not taken as a dead-ball push by a player seven yards away from the goalkeeper. Instead, the regulation has been converted into a one-one-one between the player and goalkeeper, in which the former starts rolling the ball from the 23-yard line and has eight seconds to beat the custodian and score. Hit the ball harder, not more cleverly.
- In case of free hits awarded to the attacking team within five yards of the striking circle, the player taking it is required to either move the ball five yards or pass it onto a teammate outside the circle before it is hit or pushed into the striking circle. No scope for intricate play in small spaces.
- Long corners are now taken from the 23-yard line and the spot needs to be aligned with the point where the ball crossed the baseline. Power, and more power.
- There is no offside rule in field hockey. It was abolished in 1992. We already know what this means.
- A player can now tap and carry the ball himself into play from a sideline hit. Earlier, the player taking the sideline hit had to pass the ball to another player to resume the game. Speed matters.
- There is no cap on rolling substitutes. Any number of players can be replaced at any given moment and multiple times during the match. No tired legs.
- A green card now carries a two minute suspension, while the yellow card means five or more minutes off the field.
- The game no longer starts with the bully-off, a common sight when hockey used to be played on natural grass. Opposing centre-forwards would strike their sticks and the ground thrice, followed by a split-second tussle to grab possession. This has been replaced by a conventional pass back into a team's own half.
- The advantage rule is often implemented when the ball hits a player's foot. Earlier, this always led to a free hit, but now, the umpires keep the flow uninterrupted if the infringement does not actually stop the opposing side.