Caught in a Turf War

Caught in a Turf War

As the Hockey India League-World Series Hockey battle heats up,Daksh Panwar lists out the flashpoints of the erupting conflict,contending that it will be the players who will eventually bear the brunt.

As the Hockey India League-World Series Hockey battle heats up,Daksh Panwar lists out the flashpoints of the erupting conflict,contending that it will be the players who will eventually bear the brunt

Hockey India League (HIL) brand ambassador Sardar Singh seeks out his captain,World Series of Hockey (WSH) star Bharat Chhikara,in the striking circle with a wonderfully threaded pass. Chhikara receives the ball and,running away from the post,unleashes a thunderous reverse hit that beats a diving goalkeeper all ends up. It’s not a futuristic vision or wishful thinking about a coming together of the two warring factions — Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation/WSH — for the sake of Indian hockey. It is the actual reconstruction of what happened on Monday during the Haryana vs Bengal match at the Hockey India Senior National Championships in Bangalore. A scenario rendered improbable at the international/club level,is routine here.

Most of the 90 Indian players that will go under the hammer at HIL’s auction next month are participating in the tournament,alongside scores of those contracted with WSH. Defending champions Haryana have eight players from the IHF-backed “unsanctioned” league. And it’s not too different with other big teams like Air India and Punjab.

That,of course,doesn’t signal a thaw between the federations — in fact,the battle for control of Indian hockey is actually heating up. Nor does it mean HI has reconciled with the players who had signed up for WSH,far from it. As things stand,the likes of Haryana’s Chhikara,Mandeep Antil and Didar Singh or Punjab’s Gurjinder Singh and Ravipal Singh are playing in the HI nationals but can’t be considered for the national camp.


And talented as they are,they won’t figure in the HIL either — HI doesn’t want them and WSH won’t release them. The 19-year-old Gurjinder,top-scorer in WSH,is one heck of a drag-flicker,and if nurtured properly can serve the country for years to come — the next Jugraj Singh,observers say. For the moment,though,his India aspirations are on hold even before they could take off.

Gurjinder is young and full of hope. But for 28-year-old Chhikara,a pit-bull of a right half who sticks to forwards like chewing gum to the boot,time is running out as the HI-IHF/WSH battle protracts.

HI secretary general Narinder Batra insists the board has its hands tied when it comes to allowing these players in HIL or the national camps as they participated in an event not sanctioned by the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

“Hockey India League is an FIH sanctioned tournament. By including a player who was in an unsanctioned league,I can’t risk an action against the whole tournament or the hockey body. Same goes for the national team,” says Batra.

It’s an argument that hasn’t convinced many. “This is rubbish,” retorts Dhanraj Pillay,coach of Air India,who also played in WSH. “What about the Pakistanis? They played in WSH and went on to represent their country at the Olympics. FIH didn’t stop them. On the other hand,we didn’t take many of our finest players,and look where we ended,” says the former India captain.


Dhanraj accuses HI of adopting double standards and cites the nationals as an example. “The reason HI allowed the WSH players to participate here was because they wanted to show the national championships that they are hosting is the biggest-ever. In their absence,the competition would have suffered greatly. So it’s all a matter of convenience. They will do what suits their interests,” he says.

Nimbus Sports,the promoter of WSH,agrees. “No organisation,be it FIH or HI or IHF has the right (legally or morally) to pose a restriction on a player’s ability to earn a living,” says Sunil Manocha,the firm’s president.

“Threatening to not allow a player to represent his country because he is earning a living (legally) is not only illegal and immoral,it is unpatriotic. Unfortunately,none of us Indian hockey fans have ever been able to understand the selection procedures adopted by our hockey federations. The biggest loser in these federation discriminations and biases is,unfortunately,the sport of hockey and our country,which are often represented by second string players,” he adds.

It may be “illegal”,but the fact is that the threat is working. A lot of WSH players say off the record that they would like to join HIL if released. One such “second string player”,who was in India’s scheme of things before the Olympic qualifiers,says he didn’t want to play in WSH after it became clear it would hamper his India chances. “But WSH told me I’d have to pay three times the signing amount if I were to opt out. I had to play,” says the player,who does not wish to be identified. He had initially signed up because everyone else was signing up.

Coming from rural backgrounds,most players aren’t aware of legal complications and look to seniors for guidance. If the seniors protest against the coach or federation,or sign contracts,they do so too,without asking too many questions. It may be recalled that during the Olympic qualifiers in South Africa last year,nearly all India players had joined WSH,including HIL’s face Sardar Singh,before he and few others opted out.

A scorned Nimbus have shot off a legal notice to Sardar,holding him to his contract,according to which Sardar is not to play,promote or endorse any hockey event or match taking place in India that has not got IHF’s sanction or is considered by Nimbus as similar or in conflict with WSH. A year on,he has been paraded by HIL,along with Australia captain Jamie Dwyer,as its brand ambassador. “He should show some responsibility. He was our brand ambassador when we set up WSH. You should ask him how he has signed up for another league when he has a contract with us,” said Nimbus Sport’s COO Yannick Colaco.

“How many people read their contracts anyway? We are hockey players,not experts in such things. We signed where we were told to. Now there are legal threats. So we play on,” says another WSH player.

Asked if WSH would release a player if he wanted to join HIL,Manocha said: “All WSH players have signed at least 3-year exclusive agreements with WSH (some of the younger players have singed 6-year contracts)…every contracted player has to first approach WSH if they want to play another league…WSH will then evaluate the request and then pass it on to the players’ franchise. It is then up to them to decide whether they would like to give the player an NOC to participate in another league.” The chances of which are so slim,it might as well be a no.

For the entire moral high ground that WSH seeks to take vis-à-vis HI,the real issue is about protecting its interests first. Which is fair enough,given a lot of money has been invested,but WSH has also employed arm-twisting tactics against players who wanted to pull out,invoking the clause which asks them to cough up thrice their signing amount to do so. “I didn’t have that much money,so I played,” says another player.

There is also confusion among India players who initially signed up for WSH but opted out before the tournament. More than the excitement about the players’ auction next month,they are worried about any legal action WSH might take. “Contract to hum logo ne bhi sign kiye the. But we wanted to play in the Olympics,so we returned the signing amount. WSH refused to take the cheque back. It’s still lying with me. Ab pata nahi kya karenge,” says a senior Team India member.

An opening,not really

Meanwhile,after Batra slams the door shut on the “defectors”,citing possible FIH action,it opens a crack. “The party which has grievances must come to us. We have set up a special committee to look into each specific case,” he says.

Individuals have approached HI,but they haven’t received any response. Says Bharat Chhikara: “I have written quite a few letters to HI,asking them to consider me for national camps and the Indian team. I haven’t got a response.”

It’s not the first instance a rebel sports body has cropped up. American sport is replete with examples. In most of those cases,be it NFL vs AFL or NBA vs ABA,they all eventually came together. Closer home,in Indian cricket,there was considerable animosity between the BCCI and the ICL. Eventually the BCCI gave amnesty to the players, many of whom now play the lucrative IPL,while ICL was slowly smothered.

WSH,however,doesn’t foresee any such scenario just yet. “The question (of merging with HIL) really doesn’t arise because as of today,there is no other league. You can’t consider merging into something that doesn’t exist,” says Manocha. A merger might not be in the offing,but a collision certainly is. Manocha informs that the 47-day second season of WSH will duly kick off on December 15,which means it will clash with HIL that beings on January 5,2013.


At the nationals meanwhile,Haryana coach Sandeep Sangwan is conducting a practice session ahead of their quarter-final. He divides the team into two halves and pits them against each other. One half is led by Sardar,the other by Chhikara. Unwittingly,the WSH-HIL battle has spilled on to the field,and the players are at the centre of it.