A question of quality
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As Rajasthan waited for the bus after what turned out to be their last game of the tournament, an ageing pot-bellied man sporting the team's chartreuse t-shirt and a salt-and-pepper beard was lounging around on the steps at the Karnataka Hockey Stadium entrance.
The team had lost 11-0 to Madhya Pradesh State Hockey Academy in a Group E match, a result which after their 9-0 defeat to Air India on Monday, meant curtains. At the last edition in Bhopal also, they had crashed out in a similarly abject fashion.
And yet, the aforementioned gentleman, who looked like the coach, seemed rather cheerful, cracking jokes and backslapping team-mates. "I am not the coach. I am a player," he clarified.
Bahadur Singh, 47, played his first senior nationals in Bangalore, even briefly taking the field against Nagaland on the opening day. But how - it's anybody's guess.
Which is not to suggest a forty-something can't play at this level, but a forty-something making his nationals "debut", in an intensely physical game like hockey, is quite simply baffling.
Bahadur denied the request for an interview, but coach Mitranand Puniya insisted that the right-half's exteriors might suggest otherwise, but he was fit enough to be in the team. But what was his motivation? "He'll get a certificate that he played at the senior nationals level," Puniya said.
The response is symptomatic of a bigger problem that afflicts the tournament: it's more about participation than competition. In a bid to project it as the biggest nationals ever — and also perhaps to show that they are the de facto hockey body in the country — organisers Hockey India have invited 36 teams from around the country. Quantity has been preferred over quality.
No wonder then that double-digit scores have been more of a norm than exception. On Tuesday itself, Rajasthan's 'embarrassing' 11-0 defeat looked rather 'respectable' in front of Nagaland's 16-0 surrender against Air India and even mildly 'competitive' vis-ŕ-vis the 20-0 annihilation of Kerala.
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