Ones for the future?

Making waves… players of Delhi Waveriders celebrate after defeating Punjab Warriors via the tie-breaker in the final of the Hero Hockey India League in Ranchi.-MANOB CHOWDHURY

A crop of sprightly young Indian players impressed with splendid performances. These players, on many occasions, even overshadowed international stars, writes Amitabha Das Sharma.

A team coached by an Indian wins the title; an Indian emerges the top scorer of the tournament and an Indian is named the Best Young Player of the event. The second edition of professional hockey’s showpiece tournament, the Hero Hockey India League, had something more than the usual to offer in terms of content and quality.

Cedric D’Souza celebrated his first year with Delhi Waveriders by guiding his team to victory and in the process re-established his credentials among a host of top-grade foreign coaches.

Waveriders, co-owned by Bollywood actor John Abraham, proved to be the most consistent performer in the HIL, entering the final for the second successive year. In the final, Waveriders (it lost 2-1 to Ranchi Rhinos in the summit clash last year) edged past a strong Punjab Warriors via the tie-breaker.

Akashdeep Singh, the `Most Promising Player' of HIL-2.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Cedric, the former National coach who took India to two World Cups, was back in the news with his novel methods that successfully dovetailed technology and tactics to give the Delhi outfit its maiden title. The Waveriders introduced both Cedric and John a few days ahead of the tournament, apparently hoping to add value to the side. The move definitely paid off as the Delhi side, under the supervision of Cedric, delivered a delectable brand of hockey. Waveriders’ captain Sardar Singh proved his merit with his all-round game that was both robust and effective in situations where most of the sides counted on their foreign players to deliver the results.

In fact, more than the seniors, a crop of sprightly young Indian players impressed with splendid performances. These players, on many occasions, even overshadowed international stars such as Ashley Jackson (England), Jamie Dwyer (Australia), Moritz Fuerste (Germany), Lloyd Norris Jones (South Africa) and Teun de Nooijer (The Netherlands) and featured prominently in the performances of their teams.

Manpreet Singh and Amit Rohidas (Ranchi Rhinos), Akashdeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah (Delhi Waveriders), Gurmail Singh and Affan Yousuf (Punjab Warriors) and Lalit Upadhyay (Kalinga Lancers) were part of the Indian youth brigade that came up with stellar performances.

Sandeep Singh of Punjab Warriors, the top scorer of the League with 11 goals.-R. V. MOORTHY

Akashdeep Singh deservedly won the ‘Most Promising Player’ award. He played a vital role in Waveriders’ attack, scoring three goals. Akashdeep, along with Nikkin Thimmaiah and Yuvraj Walmiki, formed a formidable trio for Waveriders.

Akashdeep impressed in a creative role and played the perfect foil to his Indian senior and team captain Sardar Singh. His best came in the final where he helped Waveriders stage a comeback against Punjab Warriors with a blistering run down the left and a measured pass to Norris-Jones, who scored to restore parity.

Manpreet, the Indian Junior World Cup captain, was the livewire in the Ranchi Rhinos midfield. He stood out for his speed and attacking skills and was one of the key performers who helped Rhinos gain the third spot. Manpreet scored a solo in the third place play-off match against Uttar Pradesh Wizards, as the Rhinos got even and then went on to win via the tie-breaker. Rohidas figured prominently in the Rhinos’ defence, combining well with senior Kothajit Singh.

Affan Yousuf and Gurmail Singh galvanised the Punjab Warriors attack, doing the bulk of the work in the forward-line and midfield respectively. The Warriors was highly favoured to win the title, having had the highest success rate in the tournament, but was upstaged by Delhi Waveriders. The Punjab outfit lost only two of its matches — the first outing in the league and final — and interestingly both its reverses came against Waveriders.

Lalit Upadhyay was the most skilful player in the Kalinga Lancers’ attack. His most memorable goal was against UP Wizards in the league stage. He weaved through the rival defence exhibiting brilliant stick-work before scoring the goal with a reverse flick.

While the Indian youngsters’ performance was uplifting, the re-emergence of Sandeep Singh as the drag-flick expert was heartening indeed. While most of the sides relied on a foreigner to do the job, Sandeep was the determining factor for Punjab Warriors and emerged the highest goal-scorer of the tournament. He scored 11 goals, 10 of which came off penalty corners. His conversion rate was almost 40 percent, a factor that helped Warriors reach the final. Sandeep, however, failed to fire in the final despite getting two chances.

THUMBS UP FOR HIL

The HIL has given professional hockey the kiss of life. The president of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), Leandro Negre, conveyed this message ahead of the final in Ranchi. He said, the ‘success of the HIL’ will inspire many more such tournaments, and the first one to follow its example will be a similar tournament in Europe.

“The representatives of the European Hockey Federation are impressed by the success of the HIL and have decided to start a professional tournament on the lines of the Indian event,” Negre said after presiding over a competitions committee meeting of the world body in Ranchi.

“The modalities of the tournament will be worked out and we plan to start it soon,” he added.

The FIH, which also announced an eight-year sponsorship deal with Star Sports, is keen on starting more professional tournaments in order to revive the interest in the sport, which has been suffering from lack of patronage worldwide. “We have full support for the HIL, which has showed how professional hockey can be successful,” Negre said.

The FIH president also said that he hoped to see HIL grow in stature with more franchises joining in the future.