HIL overcomes early bumps to finish with a flourish

The HIL showed, once again, that non-cricket sports can be popularised in India with proper management and marketing. Sometimes, even without that. And that would be the biggest positive for Indian sports.

The JayPee Punjab Warriors celebrate their victory against the Kalinga Lancers in the HIL final in Ranchi.   -  PTI

When the fourth edition of the Hockey India League kicked off on January 18, there was a lot of scepticism, on all fronts, about the viability of the competition. Some of the top players from Europe were barred from participating, the broadcaster appeared less than interested in generating eyeballs and the opening games in some centres struggled to get spectators.

By the time Jaypee Punjab Warriors lifted the winner's trophy on Sunday at the Astroturf Hockey Stadium in Ranchi, all apprehensions had been laid to rest. The league is here to stay. Despite the lack of hyperbole and over-the-top publicity that marked some of the other professional sporting leagues that began in the country last year – not to mention the attention associated with the Indian Premier League – the HIL managed to hold its ground. While the analysis of Television Rating Points (TRPs) is a different game, the presence of crowds at most of the venues was heartening.

World's best in action

Barring the Belgian and Dutch players, most top stars of international hockey kept their date with HIL. Ashley Jackson, Barry Middleton, Moritz Fuerste, Mark Knowles, Jamie Dwyer, Chris Ciriello, Tobias Hauke, the numbers were impressive. The largest contingent of 24 came from Australia which, Knowles admitted, was due to a combination of factors – administrative collaboration between the two countries, ideal preparation for the Olympics and oodles of money. “I have two Olympic gold medals but back home I am hardly known. The HIL gives recognition to players,” Fuerste, the most expensive player in the event, admitted.

While there was little in terms of support from the broadcaster Star Sports early on, the telecast quality and quantity improved as the competition advanced. From hardly any promotion on air, it moved to telecasting the knockouts and the final on six of its eight channels in India. Even the promoters of the teams, barring Kalinga Lancers which is owned by a conglomerate led by PSU IDCO, were hardly visible and made little or no effort to publicise and popularise their teams or players.

Empty stands at stadia would have meant an embarrassment. Impressive crowds even at venues like the Major Dhyan Chand Sports College in Lucknow, on the outskirts of the city and not easily accessible, helped matters. At Delhi's Shivaji Stadium, the final league game saw even the aisles inside the premises packed, almost 2000 people trying to get in and one of the doors broken in desperation. This, in a city that was dismissed as no place for sporting events. Places like Bhubaneswar and Ranchi were sold out all through.

On field, the level of matches was at par with the most competitive tournaments. New scoring rules did generate excitement and occasionally inflate the score-lines but the overall emphasis for teams remained on getting the basics right. It isn't surprising that the four teams that reached the semi-finals were also the most consistent ones in the fray regardless of the results. The fact that the semi-finalists were not identified till the last league match indicates the fierceness of competition as also the fact that almost every franchise managed to build a balanced unit.

Exciting young talent

The biggest takeaway, however, would be the emergence of new talent in Indian hockey. Started with the sole aims of developing new talent and making the players financially secure, the HIL has managed to do both, to a large extent, in its four years of existence. This year, in fact, has thrown up several names, from all the teams, that could go on to don India colours in the near future. Ranchi Rays' Sumit and Imran Khan, Surender Kumar and Parvinder Singh from the Delhi Waveriders, Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey and Pardeep Mor from the Kalinga Lancers, Dabang Mumbai's Nilakanta Sharma and Gurjant Singh and Armaan Qureshi of Jaypee Punjab Warriors – these are only some of the names that have stood out with their performances. The heartening feature is that these players are spread out across the field – defenders, midfielders, strikers – giving a lot more depth to Indian hockey's bench.

With the junior World Cup to be held in India in December this year, the HIL has been the ideal testing ground for these youngsters. “I believe that, to improve Indian hockey in the long run, we need to concentrate on juniors in the HIL. In fact, I have assessed the juniors across the teams this season more than anything else. Their interceptions, passing, tackling – it is important for me to concentrate on these because only by comparing their good and bad performances can I help develop their confidence. They are all in the race for a spot at the Junior World Cup and the pressure there would be similar to what it is during HIL so if they can take this, they can take that also,” junior India coach Harendra Singh said.

For the seniors, this was perhaps the best way to kick-start their preparations on the home stretch to the Rio Olympics. With the Champions Trophy in June the lone major event before Rio – and most teams would have all but finalised their final 16 by then – this was also the best opportunity for every coach to assess and identify the strengths and weaknesses of his own national team. No wonder that India coach Roelant Oltmans was spotted at almost every match across venues, the strenuous travelling notwithstanding.

The HIL showed, once again, that non-cricket sports can be popularised in India with proper management and marketing. Sometimes, even without that. And that would be the biggest positive for Indian sports.

More teams for future editions?

The HIL, in the coming years, is set to grow. A seventh team would be added to the fray from the fifth season onwards in 2017 with JSW deciding to come on board as owner of the Bangalore franchise. This would be the first team from South India to figure in the HIL, taking the sport to a completely new market, one that has huge potential given the traditional support for hockey in Karnataka. It would also be the second Bangalore sporting franchise for JSW that already owns the city's I-League team. While Pune was in the fray to be one of the franchises till last year, Hockey India has now decided to not have two teams from one state in the competition (Dabang Mumbai being the other team from Maharashtra). Instead, officials said more franchises could be added from the south, including Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.