Success stamped all over it

The victorious Sher-e-Punjab team with the trophy.-PTI

What added colour and content to the competition was the fair turnout of foreign players. They came from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, South Africa, Argentina, Malaysia, and, importantly, from Pakistan. Over to S. Thyagarajan.

Launched amidst a welter of speculation, strife and suspense, the inaugural World Series of Hockey (WSH) ran its course with success stamped all over it. The endorsement by the Sports Minister, Ajay Maken, on the efficacy of the competition is a shining testimony to the impact of WSH.

Conceived as the means to enriching the quality of hockey as also enlarging the avenue for players to parade their proficiency in a professional mode, the WSH experienced its quota of hiccups. The spokes put in the wheel by Hockey India necessitated to shifting the start from December 2011 to February 2012.

While the competition went on the wheels when the nation was in the grip of a wave of euphoria following the triumph in the Olympic qualifier, a speck of anguish and disappointment surfaced when the top Indian players expressed their inability (helplessness?) from taking part. In the bargain, the financial loss suffered by them was heavy.

Be that as it may, if HI had hoped that the venture of Nimbus Sports would be a fiasco, the calculation was way off the mark. The professional efficiency with which the event was organised, thanks to the experienced retired officials from the FIH, which turned its back on the event, proved a point or two for all those who doubted its germination.

It was heartening to see hockey players gravitating into the five-star syndrome. The franchise owners ensured the best of facilities for the players, who travelled in luxury AC coaches, flew from centre to centre, and accommodated in big hotels. For many who have been subjected to the humiliation of staying in dormitories, college hostels, army barracks and shanties like sardines, the experience was enthralling indeed.

Clash of the Titans...Pakistanis Imran Warsi of Chennai Cheetahs (front) and Shakeel Abbasi of Delhi Wizards in action.-RAJEEV BHATT

What added colour and content to the competition was the fair turnout of foreign players. They came from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, South Africa, Argentina, Malaysia, and, importantly, from Pakistan. No less than six stars, defying the threat of a ban from Pakistan Hockey Federation, crossed the border to earn the plaudits of Indian fans across the length and breadth of the country.

Renowned names like Rehan Bhatt, Shakeel Abbasi, Wassem Ahmed, Tariq Aziz figured prominently for their teams. But none cornered the popularity chart more than the strapping long-haired Imran Warsi. This well built hitter slammed in 19 penalty corner goals for Chennai Cheetahs. His earnings touched a whopping 25 lakh rupees.

It was a fascinating exercise to observe the swaying of fortunes of the eight teams in the fray. Until the final days, it was impossible to indentify the semi-finalists with any degree of certainty.

Since each team had to play 14 matches on home and away format with little time for travel and recovery, the performances clearly wobbled a bit here and there.

Teams like Bhopal Badshahs and Mumbai Marines who started off well strayed from their course as the competition meandered through. Sher-E-Punjab, the eventual winner, passed through a lean patch in the end despite its glittering start. In fact, it ended only second on the table to its rival, Chandigarh Comets, after holding on to the top of the table spot for the major part.

Trained by former Indian coach, Rajinder Singh (Sr), Sher-E-Punjab, was served brilliantly by the three former Olympians, Prabhjot Singh, Deepak Thakur and Gagan Ajit Singh, apart from two superbly skilled mid-fielders Inderjeet Chadha and V. S. Vinaya. Looking back, Sher-E-Punjab was probably the most balanced and consistent outfit in the competition. Coach Rajinder Singh deserves a special appreciation for his endeavours.

The gangling Gurjinder Singh was the hero of Chandigarh Comets. With a personal tally of 19 goals, the 18-year old gave his former India coach, Harendra Singh, many delightful moments. Gurjinder represented the burgeoning pack of penalty corner hitters. No, wonder, the drag flickers dominated the scoreboard.

Veteran Indians Dhanraj Pillay (left) and Viren Rasquinha turned out for Karnataka Lions and Mumbai Marines respectively.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Led by the wily Arjun Halappa and served well by the veteran flicker, Len Aiyappa, the Karnataka Lions bunked the early trend of defeats to recover in time to snatch a semifinal berth. For a team that lost seven of the 14 matches, it was really a herculean task to figure in the semifinals. Interestingly, hockey's showman and a darling of the crowd, Dhanraj Pillay turned for KL for whom the former Olympian, Jude Felix worked as the coach.

It was an engrossing path to the semifinal and then to the final, for Pune Strykers. A late starter after a few setbacks, Pune Strykers, served well by the Argentine Mario Alamada and the Canadian stalwart Kenny Pereira, performed beyond expectations to come close to the title before succumbing to Sher-E-Punjab in the final in Mumbai.

A semifinal favourite, Chennai Cheetahs, skippered by the Aussie craftsman, Brent Livermore, and coached by Jose Brasa, stumbled at the last hurdle. A must win scenario proved a little too tense for Livermore and the rest. Imran Warsi was its talisman and Adam Sinclair was no less, scoring a few breath-taking goals. It was, sadly, a so-near-yet-so-far tale for Chennai Cheetahs.

Shakeel Abbasi (Delhi Wizards), Lakshman Baskaran (Bhopal Badshahs) and Davinder Walmiki (Mumbai Marines) were conspicuous for their outfits.

It is clear now that WSH has come to stay. Indications of more top names coming on stage for the next edition are not found wanting. Brent Livermore hinted that several Aussie stars are fascinated by the WSH. The post-Olympics scenario may bring a few outstanding stars to WSH. The same is forecast for European outfits too.

The important question relates to the future of several young talents spotted during the WSH. Whether Hockey India will countenance them or allow them to wither away like autumn leaves, only time can tell.