Like no other sport, hockey embodies craft, guile and intellect. Its on-field aggression is softened by what it is, as the required body posture and technique make the sport less brutish than football. Let imagination run a little bit, and hockey's grace borders on poetry. All this was in the mix in the recently-concluded World Cup at Bhubaneswar.
The hockey is done, but what kind of impact will the World Cup leave behind?
I deliberately took views from foreign visitors, because they are not distracted by bravado. On the one hand, being guests, they can be expected to be polite and diplomatic. But, unlike local fans, travelling thousands of miles to watch one World Cup after another, they can make informed comparisons.
The Netherlands ambassador Marten van den Berg, a keen sports follower who attended the final two days, told me: "It was a great organisation. The audience, the people, the officials, the organisation. Everythig was +++, as we say in the financial markets. The players also have a very good feeling about the tournament."
"India is printed in my heart. The World Cup is a great experience " the best hockey in a great atmosphere of family and friends," said Danae Andrada, a member of the FIH Executive Board from Uruguay, adding, "India has something that makes you fall in love with the sport. Yesterday (on December 16, 2018) India was not playing, but the stadium was full. There are discussions (in pan shops). People ask me for tickets."
Dutch honorary consul in Kolkata, Namit Shah: "We met the Dutch team management. The manager had wonderful things to say. He said: "this is one of the best tournaments we have participated in." "
Other impressions, going beyond the stadium and games, show how far Bhubaneswar has progressed in getting visitor- friendly. Harjinder Singh Dhupar from Kenya: "People are very helpful here, very honest. The traffic is fine. People follow the rules. We had a good experience overall."
Visitors would have been lifted by the overflowing venue. Fellow-humans around you create security, comfort and positivity. The stadium was full for the late evening games and near-full for the afternoon games. Only in the Netherlands do fans show up in comparable numbers.
Despite these numbers, there was little fuss over crowd control. Security was friendly and unobtrusive, and India's experience in managing huge crowds in public spaces would have helped. There was not a single incident in the field or on the stands requiring a security scramble.
Spectators embraced good play all around, also cheering injured players, an uncommon sight in India. They remained seated right until the end of the shootout in the semi finals, and until the end of the medal ceremony after the finals. Such impeccable manners show the innate grace of Bhubaneswar's fans, and a proper understanding of the magnitude of the occasion. A culture of grace and accomplishment, for so long understated, may be the reason. With the World Cup, eagerness for the world to take notice might set in.
The facilities were clean. Toilets were cleaned thoroughly and regularly, and carpets installed in lifts were replaced every day. Such actions may appear trivial, but care for detail is sometimes lacking in India. Doubtless, instructions had been sent down, and had been followed, but, now that everything is over, will citizens embrace a culture of public hygiene?
A sports literary festival, advertised as the first in Asia, filled a gap, in a city that lacks serious intellectual discourse, despite a growing number of literary events. The media gave the nudge to the World Cup, with outstanding coverage. Orissa Post, Bhubaneswar's locally- owned English language daily, put the World Cup on the front- page. Belgium's gold medal victory had "Belgian Delight" in bold headlines on the sports page. Odia language newspapers like Samajaand Dharitri ran a series of stories on many pages throughout the tournament.
The diplomatic aspects were well- handled. The warm reception accorded the Pakistani team repaired the rupture caused by the events of the Champions Trophy 2014. Hassan Sardar, the Pakistani team manager, and Islahuddin Siddiqui, the former international player, were relaxed and convivial in conversations. Pakistani high commissioner Sohail Mahmood conducted classical diplomacy, meeting and praising Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, and hosting a lunch for the Pakistani team.
No World Cup can be complete without experiencing the poignancy of victory and defeat. Remember the photographs of weeping German and Dutch players after defeats in the quarter finals and finals? The passionate hockey follower from Bengaluru, Harini Kota, right behind me, was struggling to hold back tears after India's quarter final loss to The Netherlands. Stunned spectators created the loudest noise in funerary silence.
The Kalinga Stadium has beeen a wonderful advertisement, but it is the fans that have pushed this World Cup to the limelight. Scepticism can build up when a region remains in the wilderness for decades. Thus, Bhubaneswar looked to get the attention, and it has. Erik Cornelissen, an FIH Executive Board member told me: "I'm very positive and even a little surprised by the stadium. Its great in terms of the organisation and logistics, and the venue. Its a pity India lost."
Odisha's aggressive branding of its sports portfolios was out of character, challenging the stereotype of a people content to just be, under the protective umbrella of Jagannath, the state's deity. What I noticed is that Odisha Administrative Service officers have fire in their bellies, leaving the despondency of the past behind. Remarkably, Principal Secretary, Sports, Vishal Dev and his team displayed passion, grace and composure, with steely resolve and care for detail.
Go beyond impressions to the creation of a sporting legacy, and its hard to tell what this will be.The answer lies in the future. The hockey has been very good, but the average spectator is looking to what happens the day after. If hockey's fandom in Odisha is strong, cricket's shadow lurks everywhere. Even in the middle of hockey's biggest event, it was the presence of former Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag which caused a little nuisance in a quarter final game.
What about the wider legacy? Has the World Cup met its objective of relocating Odisha from the fringe at the core of the changing India? It is difficult to say. The World Cup is not just about the World Cup. The government generously arranged tours of Bhubaneswar, Konark and Puri for diplomats and FIH officials. Suresh Nair, Air Asia's general manager for India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, visited Bhubaneswar to launch a new flight to Bangkok, elaborating to me on the support he had received from Chief Minister Patnaik. Fans like Dhupar told me of plans to visit Puri's Jagannath temple and Bhubaneswar's Lingaraj temple. Other Indian and foreign visitors laid out elaborate tourism programmes to me. Players and officials went to the beaches of Puri. Such interventions are needed for Odisha to get up there among the best.
All this adds up to the numbers, but tourism by itself is never enough. Social and cultural transformation has to be people-driven. Of this, there are signs. Odisha is not what it was twenty years ago. In India: A Million Mutinies Now,
V.S. Naipaul spoke of India's revolt against the past. The rage he spoke about, against layers of cruelty, has now a toe- hold in Odisha. With strong leadership, willing and able to pull the trigger, there could be the all- round take- off this society needs.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador. He advises the Department of Sports and Youth Services, Government of Odisha, on Sports.