Moving towards a level playing field

The victorious Air India team with the trophy after winning the National ‘A’ division championship in Lucknow.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The response to the bifurcation of the National Championship has been positive. Coaches and players contend that the new regulation has largely helped solve the problem of one-sided contests. By Y. B. Sarangi.

It was a novel National Championship this year. In order to put a stop to the lop-sided contests that often saw strong teams mauling the minnows, Hockey India (HI) split the National Championship into two divisions. So, for the first time, Lucknow hosted the two divisions of the Nationals — the ‘B’ division comprising the lowly sides and the ‘A’ division consisting of the top teams.

According to the new regulation, the top two teams from the ‘B’ division will move up to the ‘A’ division next season, while the two bottom-placed sides will be relegated from the upper tier.

Hockey Gangpur-Odisha, a unit floated by former India captain Dilip Tirkey, defeated Hockey Maharashtra 3-2 in the final to win the ‘B’ division title.

The star-studded Air India, the defending champion, beat a young Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) 4-1 to bag the ‘A’ division crown.

The bifurcation of the National Championship received a lot of positive responses. The seasoned Air India striker and Olympian, Sameer Dad, who has been playing domestic hockey for nearly two decades, called it a welcome step. “There were no one-sided matches, where a team won by a 20-0 margin. Earlier, in tight situations, where goal-difference played a crucial role to determine which team would advance to the next level, some teams unintentionally got unfair advantage because of their huge wins over lowly sides,” said Dad.

Harendra Singh, the coach of CAG, was also happy with the new system. “One-sided contests used to harm the sport. For example, a team like Assam has emerged the champion in the women’s ‘B’ division championship. When the team, which used to be beaten badly till the last year, returns home as the champion it will boost the sport and the players in the state,” he pointed out.

However, Olympian Dhanraj Pillay, the coach of Air India, pointed to some teething problems in the system. “When more than 40 teams are playing together, there is bound to be some organisational problems. So, the two divisions should be held at different places. State units should take some responsibility to make arrangements for their players and help organise the Nationals,” he said.

Pillay also noted that since the National Championships clashed with the National camp in Delhi it prevented the top players of the country from participating in the elite domestic event.

Coming back to the premier division of the Nationals, the unexpected progress of CAG and the noticeable performance of Uttar Pradesh were the two high points.

CAG, a side devoid of any star player, benefited from the knowledge of former India coach Harendra Singh and gave a solid performance to stun last year’s runner-up Punjab (3-1) in the league stage and Railways (3-2) in the semi-finals to set up the title clash with Air India.

However, CAG succumbed to the pressure of playing against an experienced Air India team in the final. Ironically, though, it was rookie drag-flicker Gaganpreet Singh’s fabulous hat-trick that helped Air India tame CAG.

“I felt no pressure in the final. The only time I felt the pressure was in the semi-finals against Uttar Pradesh. It was a good side,” said Gaganpreet, 20, a product of the Surjeet Hockey Academy (Jalandhar).

The ‘patch-up’ between Uttar Pradesh Hockey and the Hockey Association of Uttar Pradesh resulted in the formation of a strong home side that consisted of several accomplished players including Tushar Khandekar, Devesh Chauhan, Diwakar Ram and Vikas Sharma, all from various oil companies.

Banking on its penalty corner specialist Diwakar’s string of sterling performances, Uttar Pradesh posted some big wins before going down 2-1 to the eventual champion in the semi-finals.

Uttar Pradesh defeated Railways 4-2 to take the third place and salvage some pride. For Railways, which made it to the semi-finals after over a decade, it was not a bad finish either.

With the improvement in the quality of matches, the National Championship(s) may help enhance the standard of the sport in the coming years.

SPECIAL AWARDS Best Goalkeeper: Adrian D’Souza (Air India) Best Defender: Diwakar Ram (Uttar Pradesh) Best Midfielder: M. B. Aiyappa (CAG) Best Forward: Shivendra Singh (Air India)

Player of the Tournament: Gaganpreet Singh (Air India)