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TURFED OUT

Asia, especially India and Pakistan, were the kingpins of field hockey until the introduction of synthetic turf in the 1970s.

India, who had managed to win at least a bronze medal between 1928 and 1974 Olympiads, returned home empty handed from the 1976 Games in Montreal. It was the first time that artificial turf was introduced at the Olympics.

India, regained the title four years later in Moscow, but that was helped by the boycott of many of the top hockey nations.

Despite, sporadic successes by Asian teams including India, Pakistan and South Korea at the Olympics since the 1980 Games, Asian team’s overall performance was on the decline since.

India were the only representative from Asia at the Rio Games in 2016 and only managed an eight place finish. That was an improvement of the last place ignominy India suffered at the 2012 Games.

The dynamics of hockey completely changed when synthetic turf was introduced. Unlike grass turf, synthetic turf ensured that the field was flat, even and most of all predictable. This allowed for a faster paced game that hugely benefitted the physically stronger players, rather than players who relied mostly in their skills.

The rise of teams like Australia, Germany, Holland and in recent times Belgium and Argentina were aided by the introduction of the synthetic turf.

Asian teams are still struggling to adapt to the changes although the gap has narrowed, but not by much, in recent years,

With the increase in the speed of the game, rules were also modified to allow for the different techniques needed.
Flatter pitches have removed the need for a long head at the end of the stick and made modern hockey sticks much stubbier and sturdier than their predecessors. Dimpled plastic balls have replaced the leather balls of old.

However, the biggest impact that has changed the face of the game, must be the regulations that allows for the striking of an aerial ball provided no other player was within five yards.

This combined with the abolition of the offside rule in 1992, has been devastating for the less physical Asian teams.

The last time an Asian team hit the gold at the Olympics was Pakistan in 1984. Pakistan were also the last Asian team to win the World Cup, that too a good 24 years ago at the 1994 Sydney World Cup. It was the same year Pakistan won the Champions Trophy at home, the last Asian team to do so.

No Asian team has also managed to wrest the Commonwealth Games title since it was introduced at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Games.

The disparity in Asian success at international hockey following the introduction of synthetic surface is rather telling.

Gone are the days when players relied on their dribbling skills to carry the ball into the D before making an attempt at goal. The long air-borne pass or scoop could now end up with a legitimate attempt at goal.

Physiologically tall and strong, Europeans and Oceania players are better suited to the speed game on astroturf and that has been a telling factor in recent years.

The flat playing surface had also given rise to the significance of the penalty corners. It is not only the Europeans and Australians, but the Asians also now have increasingly skewed their game to gain advantage from penalty corners.

Teams now have specialist drag flickers, whose role sometimes, is even more important that the forwards.
Many Asian countries, also lack enough synthetic turfs for their overall standards to improve. Many young players in India, Pakistan and in many parts of Asia, still pick up the basics of the game on grass fields.

By the time, they graduate to a higher level, they need to re-learn playing hockey on an entirely different surface.

All is not lost, however for Asia. India, Pakistan, South Korea and even Malaysia have made great strides with some important results against the current world hockey giants.

Perhaps the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar, India from November 28-December 16 can be a turning point for the Asians. India, Pakistan, Malaysia and China will carry Malaysia’s hopes at the tournament.

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