In a different league

The FIH backing… Leandro Negre, the President of the International Hockey Federation, meets the players of Ranchi Rhinos before the start of their HIL match against Punjab Warriors. “The HIL is good for the future of not only Indian hockey, but also world hockey,” Negre said.-PTI

The HIL was a cut above the previous Indian professional leagues such as the Premier Hockey League and the World Series Hockey in terms of quality, writes Y.B. Sarangi.

Teenaged rookies keeping pace with the superfast and seasoned European professionals for a breathless 70 minutes was the most heartening sight for the Indian hockey fans who have always wished to see the National game back in good health. This happened, again and again, for 34 matches over a period of four weeks in the inaugural Hockey India League (HIL).

Non-stop hard running, adapting quickly to changing situations, keeping one’s cool in tough situations and learning from one’s mistakes — these traits of modern-day hockey, normally not seen in India, were there aplenty in the HIL.

Hockey lovers were pleasantly surprised with the abilities of the young Indians who excelled in meeting the demands of the high-intensity games. The HIL, where game-plans were devised mostly by the best of brains from overseas, metaphorically showed the path that Indian hockey needed to tread in order to match the best in the business.

According to the London Olympics gold medallist, Oscar Deecke of Germany, Indian players are good as far as individual skills are concerned, but lack when it comes to the tactical aspect of the game. The introduction of the astro-turf had necessitated changes several decades ago, and after so many years, India sees the virtues of sailing with the flow.

HIL Hero... Sardar Singh of Delhi Waveriders, the Player of the Tournament, receives a cheque from the BJP leader, Arun Jaitley.-MANOB CHOWDHURY

With a lot of conviction and hope, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) President, Leandro Negre, backed the HIL. “The HIL is good for the future of not only Indian hockey, but also world hockey... It is an FIH-sanctioned event and that is why we have allowed a window for it and all the best players of the world are playing here,” he said.

The presence of the elite players definitely raised the bar and provided an experience of a lifetime to several up-and-coming Indians. Imagine talented players such as Manpreet Singh and Birendra Lakra, who have been part of the Indian team for nearly a year, stretching themselves to combine well with accomplished performers like Floris Evers, Moritz Fuerste and Austin Smith. The players formed the well-oiled and ruthless midfield of Ranchi Rhinos.

Baljit Singh Saini, who assisted the Rhinos’ chief coach, Gregg Clark, was thrilled by the way in which the young Indians struck a fine rapport with the fast-moving Europeans. “They did it in fairly quick time,” he said.

The high-quality action in the HIL impressed the Chief National Coach, Michael Nobbs, as much as it entertained an average fan. “It was as good as any European league, or even better,” Nobbs observed.

Delhi Waveriders goalkeeper Nicolas Jacobi blocks an attempt by UP Wizards striker Nitin Thimmaiya. "(During the HIL) we stayed together and prayed. This is an experience we do not have in Germany," said Jacobi.-RAJEEV BHATT

Roelant Oltmans, who coached the Uttar Pradesh Wizards, was lavish in his praise of the HIL. “This is such a good initiative. It is good for the future of Indian hockey,” said the Dutch, who is the newly appointed High Performance Manager of Indian hockey.

It was a dream-come-true for some of the youngsters. “Jamie Dwyer is my idol. I was lucky to play with him,” said Ranjit Singh, 20, of Jaypee Punjab Warriors.

Delhi Waveriders’ drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh said: “We were privileged to play alongside some of the top players and learn from them.”

As far as the players from Europe were concerned, apart from making some money, they also learnt lessons of spiritualism on the astro-turf. “We stayed together and prayed. This is an experience we do not have in Germany,” said the Waveriders goalkeeper, Nicolas Jacobi.

From the sporting angle, there could not have been a better script than what the HIL offered. The best two teams, Waveriders and Rhinos, made it to the summit clash and Rhinos held its nerve and midfield well to record a 2-1 win in front of a vociferous home crowd.

The battle for the third place was even more exciting. Uttar Pradesh Wizards, thanks to skipper V. R. Raghunath’s four consecutive goals, staged a stunning fightback to get the better of Punjab Warriors 4-3.

Mandeep Singh, who was adjudged the Most Promising Player of HIL, celebrates with the trophy.-MANOB CHOWDHURY

The impeccable Sardar Singh, the captain of Waveriders, was adjudged the Player of the Tournament, while the 17-year-old Rhinos striker, Mandeep Singh, was named the Most Promising Player of the event.

The HIL did a world of good to the youngsters. Within weeks, it added years to their hockey acumen and enhanced their confidence immeasurably. It also fast-forwarded their entry into the Indian team, as the selectors were keen to test as many youngsters as possible to build a strong side for the Junior World Cup, to be held in Delhi in December.

The HIL had some forgettable moments too. The league started on a note of controversy as nine Pakistani players, signed by different franchises, were asked to go home due to the diplomatic tussle between India and Pakistan following a dispute along the Line of Control (LoC).

Dabur Mumbai Magicians’ coach Ric Charlesworth, who was peeved at the exit of four Pakistani players from his team, had to swallow one bitter pill after another. His team kept losing matches as the Australian questioned several umpiring decisions and expressed his unhappiness over the absence of a referral system in the round robin stage.

Notwithstanding its flaws, some of which might be rectified in the next edition, the HIL was a cut above the previous Indian professional leagues such as the Premier Hockey League (PHL) and the World Series Hockey (WSH) in terms of quality.