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Hockey India League


The second edition of the Hockey India League was bigger, better and definitely another step towards attaining international standards. And what’s more, it threw up some truly talented young players, reports Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: March 9, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Hockey India League |

Seconds before the commencement of the penalty shootout that decided the winner of the second edition of the Hockey India League (HIL), Delhi Waveriders co-owner and actor John Abraham stepped aside for some pep-talk with team goalie Nicolas Jacobi. True to form, the wily German smiled and, as if it was John and not him who needed the assurance, said, “Don’t worry. I have not lost a single penalty shootout since the day I first held the stick in my hands.” And if Jacobi’s utterance sounded a tad arrogant to some, he didn’t give a dash. Jacobi went on to win the shootout and the Cup.

It was amidst such hubris that the second edition of HIL was played this year. Unlike the first edition where one could see some hesitation and lack of coordination among the players, this time around there was evidence to show that the game and the tournament have matured. And though it would be a tad too early to predict the future of this league, considering similar attempts in the past—for example Premier Hockey League—died a slow agonising death; it can be safely assumed that this one is not going to die, or at least not in the foreseeable future.

So what is it that gives me so much confidence? Several of them, actually. First and foremost is the crowd turnout. Agreed, sitting in your drawing rooms you must have noticed lots of empty seats in the stadium, especially the ones in Delhi and Mohali. But that does not mean that the tournament did not attract crowds. It did, and in huge numbers.

It would be callous to compare the numbers with those in a cricket match. But there used to be a substantial number present in the stadium. In Delhi’s Dhyan Chand National Stadium, whose sitting capacity is approximately 20,000, weekend matches used to draw over 10,000 spectators. Even the matches on weekdays had a respectable crowd of 7000-8000. And let me tell you, those are fairly respectable numbers in the current circumstances. The TAM ratings are still to come, but chances are there will be a noticeable bump from the last year’s numbers.

The tournament also seems to be attracting a good number of sponsors. Apart from Hero, which is the main sponsor, big names like Airtel, Coca Cola, Yes Bank and of course Star Network have lent their hands to the tournament. The case of Hero is peculiar. Hero’s owner, Pawan Kumar Munjal, is a big hockey fan himself and said to have taken the decision to sponsor all hockey tournaments in the coming five years all by himself. The bottom line did not figure here and that’s quite clear.

Other innovative ideas have also started to bear fruit. Take for example the decision to split the halves into quarters. Not only does it provide time for the sponsors to squeeze in advertisements, it also gives enough time for the teams to replenish their energy and come back crackling.

The idea to rope in celebrities like John Abraham also has some merit. They do draw crowds. A small section of such star-struck spectators does convert into hockey fans.

On the game front, the self-goal rule has been done away with in order to attract more long range scoops that make the game faster. Also, the dangerous-height rule has been modified to include balls at the height of the hips acceptable.  These small cosmetic changes will go a long way in bringing in crowds. The idea is very simple, more goals mean more crowds. It was not for nothing that the second edition saw the kind of goal melee hitherto unseen in the game of hockey.
For example, the match between Kalinga Lancers and Punjab Warriors had the scoreline of 7-3 in favour of Punjab. Similarly, Delhi Waveriders trounced Kalinga Lancers 5-0 early on. Punjab Warriors, who finished as runners-up, scored as many as 40 goals in merely 12 matches.

However, these changes had some puritans fuming. Ali Iftekhar, 28, a long-time hockey fan and a player at the state level, was especially peeved with the whole John Abraham thing. “Hockey has always been about good games. Even after India started losing most of its games, the game continued to draw a fair amount of crowd support. We don’t like cricket-style gimmickry where people only turn up when India wins. Under the circumstances, it is torture to suffer screaming and giggling girls who come here to see John Abraham and stand up from their seats to take a peep, in the process blocking our view of the game.” Brutal, but honest!

The situation was particularly bad in the VIP stands where most of the star-struck fans used to come to take a glimpse of the stars sitting metres away in the team dugout. In many of the matches, this correspondent heard clueless fans referring to the referee as “umpire” and the goalie as “wicket-keepers.” Having said that, this correspondent also saw the same set of fans come and watch games even on the days when stars were not meant to be around. Some young enthusiasts also kept on asking about rules of the game, clearly enamoured by it.

There was something else that Hockey India did which might start to bear fruit in the future. All the unsold tickets were given complimentary to schools in the city. It was heartening to see children and young adults braving the freezing Delhi winters to catch their favourite teams play. It is only reasonable to expect that a section of the same crowd will turn into an avid fan pool in years to come. On the logistical front too things were pretty sorted out in comparison with the last edition of the tournament.

As far as the games were concerned, like the previous edition, the performance of foreign players was key in their respective teams’ successes. All the big names, including Jamie Dwyer, Teun de Nooijer, Moritz Fuerste, Japp Stockmann and Nicolas Jacobi, went all guns blazing and were a delight to see. However, two young players need special mention for their remarkable game. New Zealand’s Simon Child and England’s Ashley Jackson, who play respectively for Delhi Waveriders and Ranchi Rhinos, were simply outstanding. It was sheer pleasure to see Simon Child play left up for Sardar Singh and other halfbacks. The coordination was brilliant and one wondered how come Mandeep Singh and Sardar couldn’t replicate the same magic in the national team. Simon Child particularly showed marvellous skill during the penalty shootout that gave Delhi the Cup.

Ashley Jackson was brilliant playing for Ranchi Rhinos. In the absence of Mandeep, who had to pull out because of an injury in the middle of the tournament, the onus was on Jackson and Manpreet Singh to take the team forward and they did reasonably well in finishing with the Bronze medal.

But the tournament will be known for the brilliant performance of Delhi’s goalkeeper Nicolas Jacobi, who single-handedly won the final for his team. It was rather sad to see him sit on the bench for German games in the recently concluded World Hockey Series. I hope the German coach saw his performance in the tournament and will give him more opportunities in the future.

Among the Indian players, the tournament has started to pay dividends. In this edition several young players came out of their shells and displayed exemplary hockey. Akashdeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah, Gurmail Singh, Affan Yousuf, Yuvraj Walmiki and Lalit Upadhyay can be safely adjudged as the finds of this tournament.

Akashdeep Singh and Affan Yousuf, playing respectively for Delhi Waveriders and Punjab Warriors, were especially eye-catching. Akashdeep proved to be a brilliant hand in supporting Simon Child and Andrew Mel Bir whereas Affan managed to hold his own amidst the star-studded Australian forward line that was replicating itself for Punjab. Coach Barry Dancer was all praise for the young lad who scored as many as four field goals in the tournament and assisted in half a dozen more. Akashdeep Singh won the young player of the tournament award and deservingly so.

Nikkin Thimmaiah, who donned the UP Wizards jersey, was in fine fettle. He did make a cut in the national side last year and has improved his game since then. Some of the field goals he scored for UP were a delight to watch. The same can be said of Yuvraj Walmiki’s performance for Delhi. A tad out of touch in the last few months, Walmiki raised his game and was instrumental in Delhi reaching the semi-finals. 

It was also heartening to see the old boys taking their game to a level that is comparable to the international stars. Sardar Singh regained his colour after rather timid performance during the World Series Hockey and so did VR Raghunath. Sandeep Singh was brilliant as the drag-flicker for the Warriors. It is good for India that Raghunath, Sandeep and Rupinderpal will have to fight out for the drag-flicking role for India. Raghunath, however, will have to keep his adrenaline rush in check if he wants to play at all. He has rather taken his nickname, the bull, quite literally and managed to get four green and one yellow Card in the tournament. And when it comes to adrenaline, Thimmaiah will also have to work hard. He is picking too many cards even for his age.

Goalkeeping is one area that is proving to be a concern for India. Shreejesh, though the best we have, pales in front of players like Jacobi and Stockmann. The second line is not impressive as well. But let’s say, things can only improve from here.

It is expected that we’ll get an even better tournament next year. This year, because of the tight international schedule (World Cup, Commonwealth and Asiad), many countries did not send their full roster of players, especially the Netherlands and Spain. The next edition will also see many new faces from Belgium, Spain, South Korea and hopefully Pakistan. 

Hockey India League can be termed as a sure success by the prevailing standards. Its impact on the standards of Indian hockey will start to manifest itself in years to come. The effect it has had on the spectators is already quite obvious.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017