HIL and the changing mindset of players

The HIL this year started on a very positive note following India’s performance in the World Hockey League where it defeated the Netherlands to win the bronze medal. So to add to the interest of the followers of hockey, what better than having a quality competition like HIL, and that too in the run-up to the Olympics in Rio.

Mark Knowles (left) and Sardar Singh of Jaypee Punjab Warriors receive the HIL Trophy from Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das.   -  PTI

To me, the Hockey India League is not just a league but a High Intensity League; an event that is creative, classic, competitive, exhaustive, entertaining, exciting and exclusive on its own terms because of the important inputs it brings through the most popular players from across the world.

I love the slogan of HIL this year — ‘India mein hockey khelegi dunia (The world will play hockey in India).

Truly, it was an optimistic occasion for all players, coaches and hockey lovers to enjoy world hockey at its best in India. The overall experience a player can achieve from this 4- to 5-week event is far more than he can get in any top event of the world.

The HIL this year started on a very positive note following India’s performance in the World Hockey League where it defeated the Netherlands to win the bronze medal. So to add to the interest of the followers of hockey, what better than having a quality competition like HIL, and that too in the run-up to the Olympics in Rio.

I was a bit anxious when the new rule, where a penalty corner fetched one point and a field goal two, was introduced this year. However, as the League progressed, I began to realise the huge change that the rule brought about in the mindset of the players. Earlier, while entering the circle, players looked to induce a foul in order to earn a penalty corner, whereas now they looked for the possibility of taking a direct shot at the goal.

The variety in the attacking rhythm, combined with the desired speed on the move while looking for players and the best available option to not only pass but also score has now started to reflect on the Indian youth. The one- to three-touch passes in progressive attacks and changes in speed are a few areas the Indians have fared better over the past few weeks. The on-field endurance and efficiency in the striking circle were also consistently visible among the Indian players.

The League was introduced with a clear purpose of developing, promoting and supporting hockey in India, focussing on the youth with an open opportunity to play with the latest know-how and amongst the best in the world. It helps the players have the best learning experience in today’s total hockey unlike before when they played a different style of hockey at school or domestic level but faced a complete contrast in the international arena.

Having experienced the League as coach alongside Barry Dancer, the head coach of Jaypee Punjab Warriors, which won its maiden HIL title this year after entering the final for the third season running, the eagerness and willingness that I observed in the young and raw players is far greater than what I saw among the established ones who have played at the highest level and may not be as overawed while facing the overseas opponents.

A player growing with ideas after watching stars such as Sardar Singh, S. V. Sunil, Mark Knowles and Simon Orchard is now sharing the same space in team meetings and discussions. Such players are all an integral part of every team strategy. I feel proud to see a senior player putting his hand around a junior’s shoulder during one-to-one or group meetings in the dugout.

Remember the times when there used to be debates on having a foreign coach for the Indian hockey team, one who will bring in a successful style and strategy used in modern hockey. While a few are still unsure about it, the HIL has provided a pool of top foreign coaches along with some of the best in India to coach and create an environment, with the amalgamation of various languages, cultures, habits and styles of play, for achieving success.

You name them, whether they are goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders or attackers — they are all displaying and sharing their know-how and experience.

The interesting part about the HIL is that in spite of the presence of the world’s top players from across the globe, it’s the Indians, both up and coming and the established ones, who are benefiting from the League.

The talented youngsters, who in the past have had to wait for years for their selection to the National team, are now enthusiastic to present and provide evidence to the selectors in the HIL matches. Not to mention the financial rewards for the players at the end of every match.

The quality of the League, over the last few years, has improved — in terms of both coaching and playing. The expectations are more open and demanding with every passing day. The selectors now have a tough task not only because of the available talent but also due to the fact that it is not easy to miss out a player who has been widely appreciated and graded by the viewers as a future star of Indian hockey.

I have no doubt that the talent pool in the country will increase each year. The players now can look forward to an attractive opening in the form of HIL. The pool of promising players has increased from 10 in the previous edition to 25 this time, with names such as Baljeet, Dipsan, Stanley, Armaan, Sumit, Nilakanta, Gurjant, Manpreet Jr. joining the established youth like Harmanpreet Singh, Akashdeep, Mandeep, Manpreet, Kothajit, Varun, Harjeet, Gurinder, Lalit, Afaan, Amir etc. The fine-tuning will take time, but fortunately for these youngsters with loads of talent, they have many years of hockey in them.

The development of Indian players in these few weeks of competitive hockey is inspired by inputs from players from Argentina, England, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, Austria, Spain, Ireland etc., who have been competing at the international level and practising with perfection to counter the Indian style of hockey.

The Rio Olympics may be a few months away but the technical people responsible for Indian hockey are already on their toes preparing a database for every match played in the HIL, for each player who has performed or has the potential to perform not only in small games but also in big matches.

The 2016 HIL may have been lucky for a few who have caught the attention of the National coaches and selectors. They may perhaps see their Olympic dreams come true.

(The writer is a former India centre-forward and Olympian)