Set to trigger a regeneration

INDIAN hockey is set to court good times. The mood of depression is melting, giving way to optimism.

INDIAN hockey is set to court good times. The mood of depression is melting, giving way to optimism. This is largely on account of the consciously designed means by the sponsors to inject an element of glamour and glitz to the tepid scenario after a year of convulsions, controversies and contradictions.

If SAHARA-INDIA revived the drooping spirits two years ago, stepping in to lift the image of what is often referred to as the national game, it is now the turn of ESPN-STAR Sports to trigger a revolutionary regeneration.

The Premier Hockey League (PHL), to be launched this week at Hyderabad, is perceived as a panacea to the malaise afflicting hockey in the country. Both in range and scale, the dimension and reach cannot match cricket; but the long felt need of an NHL is bound to trigger a perceptible measure of interest for all sections.

Packaging a full-scale professional league, involving as many as 13 foreign players and the cream of national talent, is by itself an achievement of sorts. The ESPN-STAR Sports, which will telecast all the matches live, and the Leisure Sports Management, the unit behind conceiving the idea with the Indian Hockey Federation, deserve praise for the endeavour.

More than the novelty of the format, what interests everyone primarily is the financial reward. It is computed that almost everyone will benefit to the tune of Rs.100,000 from the month long championship featuring five teams in the Top Tier. The prize money is also substantial, touching Rs. 70 lakhs, with the winner taking Rs. 30 lakhs.

The matches consist of four parts of 17 � minutes each, which again is setting a new trend. Given the scope for exploiting commercially the time slot between breaks, this concept will definitely engage the attention of many sponsors. Even the International Hockey Federation, which monitors the PHL closely since the idea was mooted and confirmed in March last year, will not be averse to experimenting with the system, at least in a few competitions.

How much of the popular wave of enthusiasm generated can be garnered to boost the value of PHL remains to be seen. There is no dispute over the fact that it will surely elevate the quality in the higher echelons. The participation of foreign stars is another plus point. The exercise of involving a large section of national players into different teams is another well thought out measure, against the popular demand of inducting star-studded institutional teams like Indian Airlines, Punjab Police, and Punjab and Sind Bank, which may corner all the financial rewards and focus, reducing the PHL into another all-India tournament.

As the President of the Indian Hockey Federation, K. P. S. Gill rightly observed there might be a few teething problems in the inaugural year. The experience gained out of the Hyderabad edition will definitely help identifying areas of deficiency and improve upon them in the forthcoming years. With several centres upgrading facilities at the Stadiums, the PHL can well be spread over to other parts of the country. The fact that Pakistan Hockey Federation is planning a similar venture in 2006 after observing the conduct of the PHL at Hyderabad testifies the interest created among the hockey playing countries.

Interestingly, Pakistan has the maximum of 10 players figuring in the competition, apart from the two from Malaysia and one from Spain. Quite predictably, the presence of the World record holder for highest number of goals in the game, Sohail Abbas, adds an element of glamour.

While the charisma of a player like Sohail cannot be disputed, it is a bit surprising that no sufficient amount of focus has been placed on the lone Spaniard, Juan Escarre. Not only is Escarre a veteran of many a battle, who leads the now refreshed pack of Spaniards, but he is a superb attacker and mid-fielder, arguably one of the best in contemporary hockey. Malaysia's Kuhen Shanmuganathan is an iconic figure in his country and a competent defender with impeccable proficiency.

The PHL has a special significance for the striker, Gagan Ajit Singh, who leads the Sher-e-Jalandhar. Surprisingly kept out of the national squad since the Athens debacle, this is a splendid opportunity for the gangling Gagan to show how he has been wronged by the selectors.

Arjun Halappa, Dilip Tirkey and Viren Resquinha are other leaders of teams striving hard to prove their credentials to handle players in tight situations. Almost all the juniors who are likely to serve at the next World Cup in Rotterdam in June-July will gain a lot more exposure and experience to fine tune their talent.

In whatever way you analyse it, the PHL signals a new era for competitive hockey in India.