Empty stands, but emphatic action

The victorious Ranchi Rays players with the Hockey India League trophy.-SANDEEP SAXENA

New teams, new format, new combinations… The Hockey India League in 2016 promises to be a different ball game altogether. However, the 2015 edition has not done too badly either. By Uthra Ganesan.

It was the final of the Hero Hockey India League (HIL) at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi on February 22. Ranchi Rays mounted an attack against Jaypee Punjab Warriors. The Ranchi team’s young, deceptively frail striker, Mandeep Singh, got hold of the ball, shoulder slammed past Rob Hammond on the move to keep possession and successfully set up a goal for his side, less than five minutes from time.

Anyone who has seen Hammond in action knows it is not easy to charge past the experienced Australian. Seeing an Indian nonchalantly move past the bald Aussie, built like a rock, at break-neck speed was unimaginable. Ranchi eventually won the title, but that particular moment, in a way, underlined the role played by the HIL in the re-growth of the sport in India.

When England’s Ashley Jackson lifted the HIL Trophy in front of a crowd of nearly 6000, it marked the culmination of a month-long celebration of the sport that saw the world’s best players rubbing shoulders with the flourishing Indian talent.

The third edition of the HIL could not have come at a more inopportune time. With the League clashing with what most Indians consider as the biggest sporting extravaganza — the quadrennial ICC World Cup — there were always doubts about the timing of the tournament. However, even though some of the games were played in front of empty stands, the action on the field was top class.

“There is no denying the quality on display. Watching some of the legends of modern hockey in action is a great advertisement for the sport. The biggest takeaway, for me, is the development of a sense of responsibility and importance to the team among the youngsters,” said Jagbir Singh, the coach and manager of Jaypee Punjab Warriors, which finished runner-up for the second straight year.

“If in the first year a young Indian player would stay at arm’s length from someone like Jamie Dwyer, now you see him walking with his arms around Dwyer’s shoulders,” Jagbir added.

Ranchi coach Harendra Singh agreed. “My team is full of match winners and no stars. Every player is equal. Even though the likes of Ashley remain an inspiration for their work ethics and discipline, the youngsters are confident enough to give their own views and even contradict the seniors at times,” he said.

The HIL has also proved to be a turf for scouting and grooming young talent. If Mandeep was the find of the League in 2013 and, thereafter, was fast-tracked into the national team, the young Harmanpreet Singh walked away with the Most Promising Player award this year. The 19-year-old drag-flicker impressed all with his power, pace and accuracy.

Imran Khan (Delhi Waveriders), Satbir Singh, Malak Singh, Gurmail Singh, Gurinder Singh (all Jaypee Punjab Warriors), Mohd Amir Khan, Mohd. Nizamuddin (Kalinga Lancers), Stanli Minz, Parvinder Singh and Prabhdeep Singh (Ranchi Rays) were among the several Indian youngsters who impressed with not just their talent but also temperament. Both Jagbir and Uttar Pradesh Wizards coach Roelant Oltmans, who is also the Hockey India High Performance Director, were of the view that playing alongside the big names would help in the long run, with Indian players taking on the Europeans and Australians as equals.

Not everything has been hunky-dory with the HIL though. In the middle of 2014, two of the original five franchises pulled out of the 2015 edition citing financial constraints. A seventh team, for Pune, was also announced but did not take off due to certain operational issues.

The organisers — Hockey India — managed to rope in replacements, but the decision did indicate a gap between expectations and reality. While the Mumbai team — taken over by Yes Bank from Dabur — was disbanded and re-formed, the Sahara-M. S. Dhoni combine kept the Ranchi Rhinos intact, only changing its name to Ranchi Rays. The results were evident, as Dabang Mumbai ended with the wooden spoon.

Popularising the event and bringing in the crowds was another area of concern. While the smaller centres like Ranchi and Bhubaneswar had good crowd, Delhi and even Mohali struggled. While Hockey India put the onus on the franchises, the team owners didn’t seem too bothered. As a result, empty stands remained an eyesore.

Hockey India is now looking at expanding the HIL to eight teams in 2016, though the details are yet to be announced. The League has also been restricted mainly to the north, with three of the six teams coming from the region, while the entire southern part of the country remains unrepresented. There had been talks of a Chennai or Bangalore franchise entering the League, but nothing materialised. Hockey India, however, insists that it is seriously looking at bringing the south into the HIL fold.

“I am sure there would not be any problem in getting more franchises on board. In fact, we have been in talks with several for some time now but logistics forced us to stick to six teams for the first three years. But from next year, things will be different,” the Hockey India CEO, Elena Norman, said.

Things would definitely be different. The original contracts are over and there would be fresh, open auctions for all players in 2016. The modalities are yet to be worked out, but all the franchises are hoping they would be allowed to retain some of the players to maintain continuity. Uttar Pradesh Wizards captain Jeroen Hertzberger has categorically said he was hopeful of staying with the team, as is the case with Jackson, who has been the fulcrum of Ranchi since the inception of HIL.

New teams, new format, new combinations… The HIL in 2016 promises to be a different ball game altogether. However, the 2015 edition has not done too badly either.