A great entertainer

A jubilant Bangalore Hi-Fliers team with the PHL Cup.-PICS: AKHILESH KUMAR

The tournament had its glorious moments in the three finals. Hockey was fast and skills were captivating as the players strove to entertain the audience. Vijay Lokapally reports.

Tushar Khandekar launching a blistering attack; Len Aiyappa inspiring his team-mates with a robust drag flick; Diwakar Ram converting a half chance. These are the unsung men emerging as heroes for their teams in a tournament that has come to be accepted by the players as the most important fixture of the annual hockey calendar.

The ESPN Premier Hockey League is a competition with some interesting departure from the routine stuff. A few drab encounters did stick out sorely but overall the PHL was a great entertainer at the home of hockey, Chandigarh.

The tournament had on an average over 10,000 spectators every day. For the semifinals and the final, the turnout crossed the 20,000-mark. The spectators braved the chill winds to motivate the players.

“It means a lot for us to perform in front of such an appreciative crowd. The ambience (at the Sector 42 Stadium) is simply electrifying. It can be hard if no one watches your play, but it is different in Chandigarh. People come to watch hockey and it is obvious they love the game. From the players’ point of view it gives us exceptional satisfaction,” said Khandekar, one of the most impressive stars of the tournament.

Khandekar, Arjun Halappa and Aiyappa were the men behind the Bangalore Hi-Fliers’ remarkable comeback.

After losing the first final, the Bangalore outfit took on Chandigarh Dynamos with amazing spirit. Khandekar, Halappa and Aiyappa gave a spirited display to help the Hi-Fliers win the title.

The fourth edition of the PHL had its glorious moments in the three finals. Hockey was fast and skills were captivating as the players strove to entertain the audience.

“We need such tournaments. Hockey has to get support from the society. The players work very hard and they need to be rewarded for their skills. The PHL would do better with some bigger names from overseas,” remarked former India star and Olympian Pargat Singh.

This being the Olympic year, most of the national federations were reluctant to release their top players. Yet, the foreign participation did lift the quality of the game with You Hyo Sik of Korea emerging the outstanding performer of the tournament.

The Bangalore Hi-Fliers was a deserving champion. It had the best combination. Bharat Kumar Chetri was the ever alert goalkeeper, whose performance in the finals was breathtaking. The team’s defence, manned by Ajay Kumar Saroha, Vikram Kanth, Cheeyanna and V. S. Vinay, was sturdy.

Arjun Halappa of the Hi-Fliers fights for possession with Deepak Thakur of the Chandigarh Dynamos in the second final. Halappa was the Man of the Tournament.-

The team also benefited from Bimal Lakra’s experience, while the speedy Sandeep Michael, Hari Prasad, S. V. Sunil and Khandekar were impressive. And above all of them was Halappa, the Man of the Tournament, who proved to be a constant threat to the opposition.

The Chandigarh Dynamos, who had good support from the crowd, paid the penalty for its over-reliance on Rajpal Singh.

Sukhbir Singh Gill and Sandeep Singh worked tirelessly in the defence, but the Dynamos lacked the thrust upfront where Deepak Thakur was under pressure. Besides, with the absence of Prabhjot Singh due to injury, the team was bereft of striking power.

Following the fracas in the final last year, the introduction of the green card in this edition had a sobering impact on the players. The coaches were divided on the move — some wanted the penalty (sending out the offending player) to last five minutes and not two — but the players did their best to control their temper.

It was a pity that players such as Dhanraj Pillay and Sabu Varkey could not find a place in any team. It was also a pity when the Orissa Steelers’ manager, Pratap Satpathy, accused a player like Dilip Tirkey of not giving his best.

The Steelers had appointed Ramesh Pathania in place of A. K. Bansal, who was the players’ choice, and Satpathy argued that the players under-performed as a protest.

The statement by Satpathy evoked strong protests back home when the fans backed Tirkey and his team.

The PHL organisers have promised a richer fare next year. And as for the hockey lovers in Chandigarh, they would simply love to return to the venue in greater numbers at the Sector 42 Stadium.