HIL: What went right and what went wrong

With the fifth edition of the Hockey India League wrapped up, it’s perhaps the right time to take stock of how the HIL has developed over the years and whether there is a need to bring in some freshness to the entire exercise.

The triumphant Kalinga Lancers team with the Hockey India League trophy in Chandigarh on February 26.   -  PTI

The Hockey India League (HIL) is unanimously praised by players at home and abroad as the most lucrative and well-managed professional league in the sport. The amount of money on offer and the kind of visibility it gives to players is no doubt impressive. It is important enough for the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to have a separate window for it at the start of the season in its calendar.

But, five years into its existence, it’s also perhaps the right time to take stock of how the HIL has developed over the years and whether there is a need to bring in some freshness to the entire exercise. With the fifth edition of the Hockey India League wrapped up, it would be worthwhile to do a fact check on what clicked this year, and what didn’t.

THE HIGHS

Dabang Mumbai’s success

From being the perennial wooden spoon holders to becoming dominant in the league, the Mumbai side’s journey was a story in itself, though it lost 1-4 to Kalinga Lancers in the final. The team, coach Jay Stacy said, was reaping the rewards of investing and keeping its faith in its younger players, while getting the bigger names like Florian Fuchs to lead the side. The team with perhaps the best spirit, its never-give-up attitude that shone through in the number of last-second wins it registered also made it the most exciting team to watch. The team’s core had several from the Junior World Cup squad and they blended seamlessly with the likes of Fuchs and Kieran Govers. And, of course, it had David Harte in the goal — that was half the battle won!

New talent

Like it happened in the previous seasons, the HIL has managed to give us some new, exciting talent, players unknown till now, who may well break into the national team in the future. This time around, one of the brightest talents to make a mark has been Ajay Yadav. The speedy forward with Uttar Pradesh Wizards belongs to Ghazipur in UP and the SAI Sports Hostel in Lucknow and counts Junior World Cupper Ajit Kumar Pandey as his batchmate for a long time.

Glenn Turner and Moritz Fuerste, Kalinga Lancers team-mates and joint top-scorers in this year's HIL.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

 

Though Yadav missed the bus for the JWC last year, he has shown remarkable control and maturity, both in his possession and positioning. Even through the league, his growth as a confident striker has made people notice him. Besides Yadav, Shamsher Singh and P. R. Aiyappa have also been impressive for UPW. Though the team failed to make it to the final, it perhaps managed to best get the balance and rhythm of its Indian and foreign players right.

The one other name that needs to be looked at seriously is Abhinav Kumar Pandey. The tall goalkeeper has been out of the reckoning for a while given the emergence of newer kids on the block but with his build, reflexes, hard work and anticipation, Pandey was the only Indian goalkeeper to inspire enough confidence in his coach to start matches in the HIL — besides, of course, P. R. Sreejesh.

Other possible big finds: Defender Pradeep Singh for Delhi Waveriders, who refused to slip into the shadows of Surender and captain Rupinderpal Singh, Hardik Singh for Jaypee Punjab Warriors, the 18-year old ball-boy turned team member who dove and chased with spirit and cleanly to trouble all attackers, Anand Lakra and Nilap Sanjeep Xess for Kalinga Lancers, the Odisha duo that was solid in the defence.

Reiterating their presence

There were also players who have been a part of the national set-up, either at the senior or junior level, but never quite got the recognition due to them. Amit Rohidas has been the silent workhorse in the defence for years now and it’s perhaps high time the national selectors gave him a chance to move on from being just a camper to an India player. He was one of the biggest reasons for Kalinga to reach the final, along with Lalit Upadhyay, whose two conversions in the semifinal shootout took them to the title clash. With a calm head and immense control on both body and mind, Upadhyay was the orchestrator of many a goal that Kalinga scored.

Age, absence no bar for excellence

Moritz Fuerste retired after winning his third Olympic medal in as many outings. Glenn Turner has been a part of the Australian side for more than a decade now. Gurbaj Singh has been out of favour for almost two years. But each one of these led from the front and proved that there was no replacement for skills and fitness despite the proliferation of youngsters. Kalinga owed its success in large measures to Fuerste, who stepped up every time the team struggled and dragged it back into contention. He and Turner were the highest scorers in the League (12 goals), also scoring twice each in the final that Kalinga Lancers won 4-1, beating Dabang Mumbai.

Gurbaj outpaced and outmanoeuvred opponents half his age to not just set up goals but also contain pressure every time it threatened to blow up Ranchi Rays. He, along with Manpreet Singh, was one of the very few positives for the two-time champion which finished a miserable fifth this time around.

Popularity in the east

There is no denying that Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh are places where hockey continues to rule. While KL promoted the team and the HIL in Bhubaneswar, Ranchi saw full houses despite not much promotion. Serpentine queues at the stadium even on days when there was a cricket match, speaks volumes about the game’s popularity. This, though, needs to be harnessed even better and not taken for granted. We all know how that panned out for the sport in Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, the one-time nurseries of hockey.

THE LOWS

Firing blanks in penalty corners

This, more than anything else, was the biggest let down of the HIL. All the big names from the world of penalty corners failed to live up to their reputation. Gonzalo Peillat, V. R. Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh, Ashley Jackson, Gurjinder Singh, none performed. Even Harmanpreet Singh was not up to the mark while Fuerste, the occasional flicker, topped the scales. The reasons vary but the failure of all these names definitely affected team fortunes.

Big names disappoint

If the youngsters stepped up the plate to prove their worth, some of the biggest names in the business fell by the wayside. Punjab was the worst hit — it had three national captains in its side, Sardar Singh, Mark Knowles and Robert van der Horst, and none of them performed anywhere close to what was expected. There were talks of too much ego in the dressing room but whatever the reason, the team never appeared to be playing as a unit. Sardar, in particular, appeared lost for space and speed and was often made to look pedestrian. There were occasional sparks of the skills that made him one of the best midfielders in the world but they were too few and far in-between to count.

The other team that suffered for its over-dependence on big names was Ranchi, which was surprising because it had been the one team with maximum emphasis on Indian youngsters till now. But in the fifth edition, it depended too much on Christopher Ruhr and Ashley Jackson, and both faltered.

Sardar Singh (yellow) was a pale shadow of his former formidable self.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

Ruhr was supposedly not fully fit which in itself puts a question mark on his being played so much. But Jackson was easily the Flop of the Tournament. He couldn’t convert penalty corners, he couldn’t control the midfield, he couldn’t assist upfront and he did not look like a leader out on the field. One wonders why coach Harendra Singh persisted with not just playing him all the time but also continuing with him as captain despite him being so uninspiring. In contrast, Manpreet Singh shouldered more than his share of the burden and, along with Gurbaj, was perhaps the sole reason for even keeping Ranchi in the race till the last game. It’s credit to the youngster that he not just covered up Jackson’s failures but pushed his own game up a notch to make up for the lack of support.

Concerns about viability

There is no doubt that the HIL is very important in the development of Indian hockey and responsible for its growth over the years. But, barring Mumbai and Kalinga, no team franchise seemed to make an effort to take the league or the sport to the people. Ranchi escaped despite lack of promotion because of the inherent love for the game there, which should not be taken for granted — it is the land of M. S. Dhoni, after all.

But the biggest disappointment was Punjab. There was no promotion, no attempts made to bring in people to a stadium that has seen full house as recently as 2010 and absolutely no connection with the public. There have been concerns raised about the continuity of Punjab as a franchise from the next year, or Jaypee continuing as the owner at the very least. With Chandigarh hosting the semifinals and the finals, there was zero visibility of the HIL around the city. This, when the Chandigarh stadium houses a residential hockey academy that has given players like Rupinderpal Singh. Ironically, the Punjab team has one of the most extensive support staff but the lack of interest from the franchise to promote the team has not gone down well with both Hockey India and the public.