Wistful memories of an Indian sporting legend

The hottest sport in India these days is cricket, with plenty of flash, dazzle and allegations of scandal that befits the modern sporting age.

Not that many years ago, however, India was a field hockey powerhouse with the legendary Dhyan Chand, who’s being missed in his homeland now as it plays host to the Commonwealth Games:

“With each new disappointment, fans cite him as a symbol of everything that was right about Indian hockey: elegance, efficiency, and above all, skill.”

As Nicolas Brulliard writes in The Wall Street Journal, the game passed India by when it abandoned grass for a fast artificial surface. Catching up has been an enormous psychological as well as logistical obstacle.

By the time I covered an India vs. Pakistan match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the quality of the hockey had faded badly between the two eternal enemies. The national animosities had not, but the match played out without incident before a near-full house of 15,000 spectators. I don’t have complete attendance numbers, but as I recall the crowd was close to the gold medal match won by The Netherlands.

But catching even a glimpse a once-great sporting rivalry was a treat for these untrained American eyes.

Update: India pulled off a rather big upset Saturday, knocking off Pakistan to reach the semifinals.

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