Is Indian hockey on an upswing?

Teammates congratulate Sandeep Singh of India (2nd L) after scoring from a penalty corner during the men's field hockey match between India and Canada of the FIH London 2012 Olympic Hockey qualifying tournament at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in in New Delhi on February 22, 2012.
Image caption India has won eight Olympic hockey gold medals, but not one since 1980

After years of decline, the Indian men's hockey team has qualified for the London Olympics. With India's cricket team facing serious problems on and off the pitch, the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder examines whether hockey can regain its status as the country's number one sport.

A near sell out crowd at the floodlit National Stadium in Delhi cheers and sings along as the the Indian national anthem rings out ahead of a key match between the host nation and France.

The young team acknowledges the cheers as they go about their routine under the watchful eyes of their Australian-born coach, Michael Nobbs.

India has won eight Olympic hockey gold medals, but nothing since 1980. They failed to qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008.

It is India's national sport but has long since been overtaken by cricket as the country's most popular game.

But the cricket team is fast losing its sheen after a string of defeats - they were soundly thrashed by England last summer and Australia over the winter.

Some, including the former World Cup-winning hockey captain Ajit Pal Singh, thinks time may be up for cricket.

Cricket blues

"I think people are now losing interest in cricket and veering towards hockey," he says.

Image caption Hockey has long since been overtaken by cricket as the country's most popular game

"We have a very good team which is well on the way to becoming a strong team internationally. After all, without India and Pakistan, what is hockey? You may have strong European teams but it's the Asian flair which makes the game what it is."

That sentiment is shared by the enthusiastic crowd at the National stadium. As they cheer every Indian move, waving giant Indian flags and dancing to the music played in the intervals, many believe that cricket gets more attention than it deserves.

"You look at the sports pages of our newspapers," says one burly Sikh gentleman.

"Even when they are losing there are huge articles on the stars, their personal lives, their spats. And here's the hockey team, doing so well, but with hardly the same coverage."

Money has a huge role to play. Cricket has always attracted sponsors, TV companies and advertisers.

But the recent poor performances have begun to hurt. The last set of home matches were played in front of empty grounds, with many spectators staying away - despite the fact that they were one-day international games which have been sold out in the past.

The team's main financial backers, the Sahara Group, even threatened to walk away.

Sports journalist Neeru Bhatia of The Week magazine believes that hockey could well benefit.

"The sport is very badly managed in India. There are two rival sports bodies which are hurting the game. The money is definitely available," she says.

Sahara recently signed a five-year $10million sponsorship deal with Hockey India, the game's governing body, in support of both the men's and women's national teams as well as the junior side.

Hockey passion

"It's not much when you look at cricket but it's a start," says Ms Bhatia.

Supporters of the game are also hoping an upcoming lucrative professional club league, the World Series Hockey tournament, will get the backing of the International Hockey Federation, which until now it has failed to do.

The tournament, which has attracted players from around the world, is modelled on the lines of the hugely successful Indian Premier League cricket tournament.

Image caption The coach promises a "sensational team" in 18 months

Back at the stadium, India score a great goal to the cheers of the crowd. On the pitch, they're doing well - and attracting plenty of support off it. Coach Michael Nobbs predicts a bright future for the side.

"In 18 months this is going to be a sensational team. India taught the world hockey. In fact the Australians [the current World champions] play the Indian rather than the European style.

"It's just that they are stronger and fitter than Indian players. That's what I'm changing," he said.

And the growing interest in hockey is reflected in the younger generation.

At Delhi's Modern School, two dozen children between the ages of 10 and 12 practice hard at their hockey skills.

"This is our national sport," says Ankur. "That's why I love it so much."

The other children nod in agreement.

"I am passionate about the game," says Varun. "If I can, I'd like to take up the game professionally."

Indians may love cricket but they have an emotional connection with hockey.

It is a game they believe they gave the world which is why they are desperately hoping it can be revived and that they can win that elusive medal in London.

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