Are Indian domestic hockey tournaments feeling the neglect?

Is the absence of star players, who are either in the National camp or participating in international tournaments, from major All-India events weakening domestic hockey? Sportstar talks to former and current India players for their views.

V. R. Raghunath (second from right) of IOC Limited celebrates with team-mates after scoring a goal against Air India in the All-India MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai. Raghunath is of the view that the Indian team players cannot always play in domestic tournaments.   -  M. VEDHAN

Dhanraj Pillay (left) and V. Baskaran are not great believers in holding camps for players. While former India star Pillay says that the business of holding players in camps is meaningless, former India captain Baskaran opines that domestic tournaments are paramount, and the national team players should play in them.   -  K. Ananthan

Top Indian players competing in domestic tournaments in the last three or four years prior to the Rio Olympics was rare. The reason for their absence, according to the hockey administration, was that the players were either in the National camp or participating in international tournaments.

Hockey India’s core group — around 30-40 players — was training in the National camp. This was to help the players understand each other’s game, iron out their faults and prepare for international tournaments, especially the Rio Olympics. Above all, the camp was to ensure that the players fell into a system that the High Performance Director and India coach, Roelant Oltmans, was trying to put in place. As a result, many of the top players were forced to skip important domestic tournaments such as the Beighton Cup, Bombay Gold Cup, Surjit Singh tournament and the Murugappa Gold Cup, among others. In fact, in the Murugappa Gold Cup held last year, none of the India players participated, as they were all in the camp.

Explaining why the National team players cannot always play in the All-India tournaments, India’s penalty corner specialist V.R. Raghunath said that it was mainly because of a packed international calendar. “With such tight schedule, we do training every day, practise in the camp and take five to six days rest and then play.”

In such a scenario, the employer understands a player’s needs and will not disturb him. “At least in my case it has been like that. When we are available we will give our services for the employer,” said the 30-year-old fullback.

The Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics are the most important tournaments and every player wants to represent India in these events, according to Raghunath. “Employers are more understanding,” he added.

Raghunath, who is working with the Indian Oil Corporation, said the process and systems vary from company to company. “There should be mutual understanding between Hockey India and the companies. Hockey India sends out official intimations to the companies with regard to the availability of the players. How it was earlier, I don’t know. Now the level of hockey has changed. Heavy training is the norm. If there is sufficient break, 100 per cent you should play in domestic tournaments,” said Raghunath, whose last domestic tournament before the recent Murugappa Gold Cup was the Bombay Gold Cup last year.

“Not every India cricketer plays the Ranji Trophy ever year. It’s the same logic,” he said. “Do companies hire payers who don’t play for India? If players don’t play for India, nobody is going to hire them,” argues the Arjuna Award winner.

 

Mohd. Riaz, former India captain and Olympian, concurred with Raghunath. He said during major international tournaments, players should be careful to avoid injuries in domestic events. “In All-India tournaments, a young and inexperienced player might play a harsh tackle against an India player. If he gets injured, it is a loss for the nation,” he said.

Former India forward Prabhjot Singh said, “During my time it was the same in international tournaments; we hardly played in domestic events.”

Tushar Khandekar, a forward for BPCL and the assistant coach of the Indian men’s team, said that ahead of major tournaments, the National team players stay away from All-India tournaments. “First of all, we have to realise what is important for the country. During major international tournaments, we have to be away from domestic events, as players need time to recover from fatigue and injuries, and take rest. It is good that the players are not playing (domestic tournaments) sometimes,” he explained.

Former India forward Deepak Thakur said that domestic tournaments are enriched when top players take part in them as they bring in new systems, which the youngsters are going to learn and benefit from. “We have learnt the European style. Players have benefited. Raghunath’s entry has got the youngsters excited. Tushar and Sandeep Sangwan (ONGC coach) who worked with Oltmans have implemented the European style in the (Murugappa) tournament (in Chennai). It is a huge benefit for the young players,” he said.

According to former India captain V. Baskaran, domestic tournaments are paramount, and players should find a way out and play in these events, as they did during his time. “If you are playing in a camp, you are not learning anything,” he argued.

The core group picked for the Rio Olympics was a flop, said Baskaran, who led India to the gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. “You think they are the best players, but I don’t think so. In three years, Hockey India could find only 30 in the core group. Every year, they should add to the core group and not subtract,” he remarked.

A staunch critic of the European system, former India star Dhanraj Pillay said the business of holding players in camps is meaningless. “You mean to say what Mohd. Shahid, Baskaran, Mervyn Fernandez did (play in international tournaments but seldom skip domestic events) was wrong, or these players were inferior to the current lot. I used to come from an international tournament and play in the Mumbai league straight away. Recently, I saw a tweet from a current India player saying that he is playing in a domestic tournament after a long time!

“Why should a public sector company appoint you if you are not playing for it? I know a junior player selected by Air India, for the major part of the year he is in the India junior camp. What is the point?”

According to Dhanraj, domestic hockey is dying, and if the administrators don’t find solutions as early as possible, it will be too late to rectify this malady.