Ever since late last month, when the Tamil Nadu government unveiled the mascot for the upcoming Asian Champions Trophy (ACT), Bomman – named after one-half of the couple who feature in the Oscar winner Elephant Whisperers – is omnipresent.
From billboards to bus stands, as murals on numerous walls across the city, Bomman is everywhere. On local FM stations, every ad break has a jingle reminding them about the tournament. As Chennai, which once was a hub of the sport in the country, gears up to welcome international hockey after a gap of more than 15 years, the excitement is palpable particularly because of the six-nation tournament that begins on August 3.
Ever since India hosted Belgium for a five-match Test series in 2008, Mayor Radhakrishnan (MRK) Stadium has resembled an old furniture that was waiting to be dismantled for good.
But earlier this year, as Tamil Nadu Government came forward to host the ACT, there was a new-found hope and three days ahead of the opening fixture, the MRK stadium, which sits opposite the Egmore Railway Station and surrounded by heritage buildings that house the state archives and gazettes, now looks as if she is getting ready for a marriage.
The Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) has undertaken renovation work on the stadium and has spent Rs 20 crores on the venue, which includes a new turf – Polygras Paris GT Zero – which will be used at the Olympics in the French capital next year.
V Baskaran, who captained India to its last Olympics gold at the Moscow Games in 1980, and claims to have played over 3,000 games at the same stadium, struggles to hold back the excitement. “This stadium was a mud to start off and then came the grass field and now it has the Olympic turf. After being out in the cold for so long, the city, fittingly, gets an international tournament,” Baskaran tells The Indian Express.
Before Odisha became synonymous with the sport in the country, Chennai used to be the one-stop destination for all major hockey events in India. From hosting multiple Champions Trophies to Asia Cup, it has hosted all the big-ticket events in the sport before K Jothikumaran, the then secretary of the now-defunct Indian Hockey Federation, got embroiled in a cash-for-player selection controversy.
As IHF vanished, so did Chennai from the hockey map from 2008-2023.
“International hockey may have vanished for a long period, but the city’s hockey culture somehow managed to thrive, overcoming the odds. But more than international tournaments coming back to the city, what is pleasing is the investment in the infrastructure. When you have such good facilities, it is bound to help the athletes,” Baskaran says.
It is something even Mohammad Riaz, the former India international from the city, concurs. “You can have a school, but you need textbooks and study materials. And that is what the renovated stadium has managed to bring back now. During hockey games, the Tamil Sangam used to come with musical instruments to cheer for the team and there were numerous fan groups. But without any tournament, they all have gone mute. I’m waiting to see the old friends turn up,” says Riaz, who is one of the national men’s team selectors.
Baskaran, being the president of the Chennai Hockey Association, has been doing his bit by managing to keep the game afloat in the city, conducting local division, inter-university and events for schools.
Speaking of the culture, Baskaran is quick to point out that the emergence of Kovilpatti and Madurai as hubs for the sport in the state is a testament to its culture.
“The city has always had a good culture and even now there are numerous clubs in and around Egmore. The First Division matches between ICF and IOB always get good crowd turnout and the Murugappa Gold Cup, too, gets good players every year. But for a sport to thrive, it has to be held in different venues, not just one city because it allows the government to spend on infrastructure and invest in the sport. After Chennai, you had Jalandhar, Lucknow and then it has been Odisha of late. Now we are back in Chennai again,” Baskaran says.
For the tournament, Baskaran has purchased around 140 tickets and 400 in the gallery, which he plans to distribute to school and college students and senior citizens. “Now we have the tournament, it is important to take it to the public. One way to keep the culture going is to bring the crowd to the stadium,” Baskaran says.
With the venue having the Paris Games turf, there is a possibility that the Indian men’s and women’s teams will play more games in the city in the lead-up to the Olympics for preparation. “This may not be a big-ticket event, but timing-wise, with Asiad around the corner, all the teams will use it to fine-tune their tactics. After that, we are expecting more foreign teams to come here and train because you have the Olympics turf here. Full credit to the state government for bringing back international hockey to the city,” Baskaran added.
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