CROWD SUPPORT OVERWHELMING

FANS HAVE THEIR FILL DURING the Premier Hockey League in Chandigarh.-RAJEEV BHATT

The 2006 PHL, held in Chandigarh was a huge success with an overflowing response from the spectators, writes Vijay Lokapally.

They came in groups — families, elders, youngsters — braving the icy winds, grabbing vantage slots and enjoying every moment of the event at the Sector 42 Stadium in Chandigarh, the home of hockey if one could say so.

For a brief while one thought it was a cricket arena as there was not an inch of vacant space and the kids held aloft their banners, straining to catch the attention of the cameramen. There was a prize to be won for the best banner of the day, and some scintillating hockey to be savoured as the ESPN Premier Hockey League gave the players a platform to excel and impress. Housewives cooking dinner early to join their husbands and kids to watch a game of hockey was unheard of. It happened in Chandigarh where `hockey families' made their presence felt in large numbers.

When it comes to cricket, the most popular sport in our country, the domestic competitions are played in front of empty stands. But during PHL, it was refreshing to see a large number of fans watching the tournament. True, the entry was free but then we don't have gates for domestic cricket either.

"It is a fantastic feeling to be cheered by more than 25000 spectators in a domestic contest," said Len Aiyappa, member of the Bangalore Lions, which won the title with a smashing performance against Chandigarh Dynamos in the best of three finals. Sporting a Yul Brynner look, he was a huge hit with the spectators, hurting the opposition with his telling drag flicks and penalty corner strikes.

The victorious Bangalore Lions.-PTI

Aiyappa raved over the PHL concept. "It is a step in the right direction and has brought people to the hockey fields in large numbers. There is money for the players. I hope it continues to grow because it is essential for the future of the game," said the Bangalorean, who spends four hours daily practising the drag flick and plays in the Malaysian league as a professional.

Rehan Butt, the Pakistani with film star looks, spent a month in Chandigarh with his wife. His inspiring performance was one of the key factors in Bangalore Lions winning the crown. He was lavish in his praise. "I must compliment ESPN for this wonderful show. The media has played a big part in writing about us. Hockey needs such promotion and support. Balanced teams have lent good competition. I would love to play regularly."

He, however, appealed for better supervision. "We must have the best umpires for key matches."

Of course, Aiyappa was disturbed with the change in the curvature of the hockey stick, reduced to 25 mm from 50 mm. "It is hard to flick the ball with the new stick. The approach changes because you need to be more technical. With the new stick, you need more power too," was his assessment.

Power. That came aplenty from Sandeep Singh, the handsome Sikh of the Dynamos. The strapping defender held a different opinion on the new hockey stick. "It has improved the trapping and there is better control now."

Sandeep displayed consistency, a contrast from his show in international matches. "I can improve if I get to see video recordings of foreign goalkeepers. They have the advantage of studying us," said Sandeep, who takes about 1000 hits a week to improve his drag flick.

The tournament also saw, for the first time, the third umpire being used in hockey. The umpires' manager, Kuku Walia, asserted, "It is much needed in modern hockey with the kind of technology available. Look at how cricket has benefited from the third umpire. It is a welcome step but should be used only for goalline incidents, deflections to decide goals and identification of hits from within the circle."

It was a step that found guarded support from Shakeel Quereshi, a veteran umpire from Bhopal. "We have some very good umpires but the third umpire should not be used frequently. It can break the rhythm of the game and also make the onfield umpires complacent. The game cannot afford too many stoppages," Quereshi was candid. He was also thoughtful when he demanded greater power and protection for the umpires posted for crucial matches. "And more payment too,' he concluded with a smile.

Walia agreed. "Discipline is a big issue. Umpires are reluctant to use the red card because there is little support from the federation and the tournament organisers. In cricket a player cannot even stare at the umpire. In hockey, he gets away with murder." Walia was obviously displeased with the incident that involved Dhanraj Pillay, an icon. Dhanraj challenged a ruling that went against him and was seen abusing the umpires and the organisers. He even instigated the spectators in a most boorish manner that certainly did not befit a player of his stature. He walked off the field and was a poor advertisement for the game on that day. Dhanraj Pillay's team, the Maratha Warriors, was relegated and Orissa Steelers would take its place in the next edition. Butt too was forthcoming. "There is no harm in having a third umpire in a tournament like this but the concept will not work in international hockey. It will influence the pace and thrill and too many stoppages will not go down well with the audience too."

The tournament was ideal for someone like Deepak Thakur, the livewire forward from the Dynamos. He lost the race for the Player of the Series to Didar Singh of Hyderabad Sultans but won many hearts with his electrifying runs. "It was okay but at least I earned a stage to dream of a return.

I just want to perform and concentrate more on scoring goals. I will have to be mentally strong," said Thakur, who revealed he had almost quit, frustrated at being ignored by the national selectors. "I have hopes now of a comeback." It is another matter that he was left out by the selectors for the series against Pakistan and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

The 2006 PHL was a huge success with an overflowing response from the spectators. The tournament was also well a conducted one.

ESPN DESERVES A PAT

Rajneesh Sharma, Taqi Raza, Amrish Pandey, Arvind Sharma, T. S. Ganesan and Girish Pandey were the stars behind ESPN's superb coverage of the Premier Hockey League. Standing behind the camera, they did a great job.

Sujatha Padmanabhan discussed the intricacies of the game with former international Jagbir Singh in a makeshift studio and the untiring Priyanka Rai contributed the updates and bytes from the coaches and the players during a match.

"Thanks to ESPN, we are being recognised in malls and markets. The media has been kind enough to devote such space for hockey. It gives a nice feeling," said Len Aiyappa, the most popular player of the 2006 PHL. Ten cameras were in operation to cover the championship. Eight cameras were following the ball all the time and two were dedicated to the two benches for instant reactions. The two static cameras, behind each goalpost, recorded the goals to the delight of television audience.

As director/producer Brad Towson explains, "The sideline cameras give you the sense of speed, the stick-work and enhance the speed of the game." His view was echoed by producer Sunil Manoharan, who observed that the experience was enjoyable more because it had helped boost the popularity of hockey. Sandeep Singh of Chandigarh Dynamos and Rehan Butt of Bangalore Lions said the players had gained immensely from the brilliant television coverage from such innovative angles.

Towson says, "From the normal five to six cuts, we have introduced 20 to 30 in a minute. We have mikes with the umpires so we get their conversation. Reactions from the coaches and players give a rare perspective of the game in progress."

Four cameras were blown to pieces in the first week of the PHL; two camera assistants were hit by the ball; cameramen perched on temporary stands braved icy winds. In the end it was all worth it.

PICK OF THE LOT

Len Aiyappa (above): Robust in defence. Good in drag flick. Most popular in the championship.

Hari Prasad: Electrifying, produced 2 goals in the final. Speed is his forte.

Didar Singh: Much improved forward. Relies on speed and stickwork.

Sabu Varkey: Untiring in the midfield. Very innovative and motivating.

Prabodh Tirkey: Fantastic anticipation and unflappable concentration in defence.

Deepak Thakur: Excellent stickwork and speed. Always on the prowl upfront.

Tushar Khandekar: Hard working forward. Counters pressure with elan.

Rehan Butt: Lent class to the contests with his skills as a forward.

Sandeep Singh: Good prospect as a drag flicker. Sure of himself.

Tejbir Singh: Crafty with his speedy runs. Needs to control his temper.

Arjun Halappa: Provided the thrust to forwards.

Bharat Chetri: Best 'keeper.