Ashley Morrison: Indian hockey players get paid well

Ashley Morrison, an experienced name in sports broadcasting, criss-crossed India as part of the commentary team for the Hockey India League 2016. As the curtains came down on the fourth edition, he spoke to Sportstar about the circumstances leading to the world’s top pros opting to play the HIL, instead of taking a break to prepare for Rio Olympic Games.

"Without the HIL, I personally believe the International game will suffer," feels Morrison.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

Ashley Morrison, an experienced name in sports broadcasting, criss-crossed India as part of the commentary team for the Hockey India League 2016. As the curtains came down on the fourth edition, he spoke to Sportstar about the circumstances leading to the world’s top pros opting to play the HIL, instead of taking a break to prepare for Rio Olympic Games. At the interaction in Mumbai, he also dwells into reasons for packed stadiums at Ranchi and Bhubaneshwar, the need for hockey to celebrate its heroes, Augustine Mazzili’s 3-D vision among others. Edited excerpts:

Question: Players from Europe and Australia took part in the HIL 2016, just months before the Olympic Games, risking injury in competition. In your view, what is it about HIL that attracts top players?

Answer: Money is a key factor. Without it many of the players from around the world would find it much harder to commit the time they do to playing and being the best they can be on the international stage. Without the HIL, I personally believe the International game will suffer. The tournament could possibly have been made shorter in an Olympic year by playing at one or two venues rather than home and away across six cities. I believe more foreign players may have been allowed to participate.

When you consider that Canadian players had to bear the expenses to participate in the Hockey World League finals in Raipur, it is clear how much being paid in the HIL will help those players. The same is true of the other players from nations outside the top eight in the world rankings. Few players will think about picking up injuries. Many prefer to be playing than training and working on set plays. The HIL is actually being held at a good time, six months from the Olympic Games. Players can still work on fitness and prepare for the Olympics at the same time.

From your travels as a commentator which country rewards the hockey pros the most?

India has to be one of the best, with the players here being rewarded far better than many of their foreign contemporaries. For example, if Australia wins gold at the Olympic Games, I believe the squad will be given a reward of AUSD 20,000, to split amongst them. Not much for a number one side in the world. The Netherlands has a different hockey culture of its own and is one that is envied by many. The South Africans win their Confederation and earn the right to go to Rio, but the South African Olympic Committee decided that neither the men nor the women will be sent to the Olympics. These players have little or no financial support and in fact have been known to seek out sponsors. They have no base for training.

In Europe, on their days off from work, players will agree to meet up and train together in an effort to create some cohesion. In recent times the coach has flown to meet players in certain cities and worked with them. It is cheaper for him to fly and meet players than for the group to travel for training in one place.

HIL crowd response in Ranchi and Bhubaneshwar was encouraging. Why do you think so?

These are hockey hotbeds with a tradition of producing players who have worn the Indian colours with pride. Many of the fans I have spoken to can name former players from their regions. I believe the reason Ranchi and Bhubaneshwar were successful in terms of crowds is not only their hockey heritage but because they are places where the sport can thrive and not have to go head-to-head with cricket. Mumbai has struggled the three years I have covered the HIL in terms of crowd support, despite the club (Dabang Mumbai) doing everything possible to pulling crowds.

Could the tournament have included a team from Pune instead?

I am no expert but look back at the crowds in Raipur for Hockey World League Finals. It is clear that the local people came out and supported this event, maybe there is something to say in support of picking markets carefully and going where the public will come. This year, Delhi Wavewrders moved the stadium and it paid dividends. A smaller venue (Nation stadium to Shivaji stadium) was almost filled and the atmosphere was fantastic. So there is an audience there but you just need to make sure that they can get to the stadium easily. There is talk that Bengaluru wants to joint the HIL. The city is a hotbed of hockey so I expect the crowds to come out in force there. Bhopal is another name keen to come in.

If the crowds in these places can match Ranchi and Bhubaneswar, then it will add to the spectacle. A packed stadium gives the competition more credibility and appeal.

Field hockey continues to be part of the Olympic programme. From your viewpoint, what needs to be done to globalise the sport?

There are several key things that need to happen to make the game more appealing. You can start out by simplifying the rules. Players and coaches say that some of the rules could be made simpler or dropped. I believe that there needs to be more of a consultative process, involving current players, coaches and umpires. It also makes sense if the game is going to gain more television coverage that the television stations are also involved. Hockey needs to increase its appeal to remain a part of the Olympic programme.

FIH experiments with rules in HIL, like doubling the value of a field goal , to make the game more exciting. Is HIL a testing ground for new rules ?

HIL is probably a good place to trial the new rules, but again it needs to be a collective process. The two goals for a field goal has not changed the results of many games, although it has had a big impact on the league table, due to bonus points and points for wins. It has, however, had a huge impact in how teams play late in a game and that has added another dimension to the event and increased excitement.

From your vantage point in the commentary box and conversations with players/coaches, what is the feedback?

The way it has been conveyed is confusing for all involved. The scoreboard shows players have scored two field goals, when in reality they have scored one goal that is worth two. So fine-tuning it could make it easier to understand. I would like the total to be points rather than goals as I think it would be easier to explain to a viewer.

I don’t like the variations on two goals for a penalty stroke. Although, I understand the reasoning, again I think we are over-complicating the rules for the viewer. I feel that if the umpire is convinced that a player intentionally stopped a ‘two-goal’ attempt and was prepared to give away a ‘one-goal’’, the match official should use the tools he has in his back pocket to deal with the offender. One-goal and a card is surely a big enough deterrent.

Broadcasting work keeps you in touch with the pulse of hockey, including the sport in India during the HIL weeks. Your thoughts?

Hockey needs to celebrate the heroes of the past. You turn on television in India and every day there are interviews with cricketers from bygone eras. Where is this in hockey? India has legends who have had a massive impact on the game, so too Pakistan, the Netherlands, Australia and Germany. As part of lifting the game’s profile I feel it is crucial we celebrate the game’s past and the men and women who were so influential in those eras. It is important to know where you have come from in order to help you find where you are going.

I am not sure that the sport has appreciated that. The next generation needs heroes. India’s current crop of Under-21’s under Harendra Singh are an exciting group of players, many of whom have shone in this year’s HIL. Yet they have received little coverage of their Sultan of Johor Cup efforts and Junior Asia Cup win. They need to be given air time and exposure now. In five years they will be the core of the Indian team. If people are familiar with them now, track the young players’ paths to the top, then there is a stronger bond that will help pull in fans and new players.

In your opinion, what are the best moments from this year’s HIL?

There were some great moments of skill in the league phase. I love to see players shifting their body weight and accelerate past a player, and we have seen that from many of the top players from overseas. Augustine Mazzilli’s 3D skills have been mesmerising. Three goals stand out, each of them being a team effort. The first was Kalinga Lancers vs Dabang Mumbai when Lalit Upadhyay carried the ball out of defence, fed Glenn Turner who cut infield and passed to Moritz Fuerste. Turner continued his run and Furste passed into his path and he slid in to score.

The second best was UP Wizards vs Jaypee Punjab Warriors. Mazzilli blocked a shot in his defensive circle, dribbled out of defence and played a couple of one-twos with Jamie Dwyer. He then ran across the Warriors D, slipped an underarm pass to Hauke who showed his class, looked up and played into the path of Akashdeep Singh to fire home. Goal number three was again a counter attack in Ranchi Rays’ win over UP Wizards. Late in the game, Arjun Halappa played the ball forward to Amir Khan who then slipped it into the circle and young Sumit Kumar showed great determination and bravery to get ahead of Sreejesh and deflect home. Hockey is a team game. I love a well-crafted team goal and these three stand out.