Around this time two years ago,Indian hockey saw the first faint signs of what would,in some ways,become its own version of a non-violent uprising. It resulted in all the 40-odd national campers uniting and in an unprecedented move going on a strike for 10 days in January 2010. Demanding their dues,the bunch refused to practice,in the face of threats of being thrown out en masse. With the B team and the age group teams too weighing in with their support,authorities had to finally back down,with bruised egos not the least because of the World Cup,which was less than a month away. Two years on,a repeat seems very much on the cards the trigger this time being the World Series Hockey (WSH).
For a country that measures sporting success in podium finishes and rewards in monetary terms,it would appear a no-brainer.
With no competition between the first week of December (the Champions Challenge in South Africa) and the all-important Olympic Qualifiers in late February,what harm can a month-long league do,other than give some crucial match practice to the players?
But for those who claim to know more of these things than the layman,it seems to have all the ingredients of a disaster in the making. With chief coach Michael Nobbs shooting off his warning against the league saying it would disrupt any plans of Olympic qualifications the issue has now grown beyond a war of administrative factions to one that,once again,pits the players against the authorities.
Nobbs’s recommendations to Hockey India,and the government,insist that if top players quit the national camp to compete in the WSH,his road map for Olympic qualification will go awry. During the league,players will be playing under different coaches for nearly four weeks. They are bound to change their style a bit,this will undo all the hard work done over the past few months to perfect a system, he writes.
While it may seem logical in a country that is accustomed to its Olympic athletes training for months together in preparatory camps,most people in favour of the WSH disagree,saying it ain’t the 80s anymore.
Why should there be any conflict? The footballers are doing this day in and day out. No player wants to jeopardise the Indian team’s preparation for the Olympics. But I think like footballers,they too can manage, says goalkeeper Adrian D’Souza.
Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) president RK Shetty says the same. Even in football the national team players are selected on the basis of the performance in the league matches itself. You see a Fabio Capello coming down to watch a Manchester United game and I think Nobbs should do the same thing, he says.
The league is being organised by Nimbus Sports in association with the IHF. In fact,there is near unanimity on whether playing in the WSH will affect playing style. And with most of the current players avid followers of European football,they feel there is no dichotomy in turning out for different clubs and the national team. Did Cesc Fabregas become incapable of playing for Spain just because he was a professional with Arsenal? I don’t think so. It is a non-issue,really, says a senior player.
Prabhjot Singh,who has played in both the German and British leagues,says there is absolutely no problem. Not just the foreign leagues,we often go to national camps after a domestic tournament for our employers and no one so far has questioned Indian players’ commitment or ability because of playing under different coaches. The basic game remains the same,only the gameplan differs. And I feel 10-15 days is more than enough to put that plan in place, he says.
There’s much to be taken from the presence of some ingenious foreign coaching brains roped in by the WSH,according to another junior player Vikas Sharma,who travelled to the recent tourney in Australia. Top coaches from Germany,Holland,Australia and Spain are coming and we will get to know about different styles and formations. Also,I believe that this tournament will teach us the value of team work. Indian hockey is all about individual brilliance. To match the top teams,we need to play as a team, he opines.
Those not in favour,however,feel there won’t be much time to practice after the league. The coach is right. This is an important year for us. We need to qualify for the Olympics. With the WSH,no training is possible for 45 days and it will take its toll on the players. Our fitness will definitely go down and we might lose out on the combination between the players as well, feels Bharat Chhetri,who captained India on the recent Australia tour.
A messy administrative set-up might make it impossible to consider,but India drag flicker Diwakar Ram who roots for the concept of the WSH,but has reservations about the timing,reckons both sides could seek a mid-path. Its better to postpone the WSH for a couple of months and organise it after the qualifiers. Definitely the timing is not right. Olympic is a huge event. We failed to qualify last time,so this time we have to ensure that we get into the main event, he says.
Old-timers,a touch edgy and worried about India missing out on a second successive Olympics dont see why the WSH cant be deferred by two months. Gurbax Singh,Olympic gold medal winner and BHA secretary,makes allowances for changing times but insists commitment for your country is non-negotiable. What hell will break loose if they organise the tournament after the Olympic qualifiers,which is in February. I dont think the postponement will make any difference. If the national coach wants a longish camp,then so be it. India comes first, he roars. Interestingly,the WSH gets over on January 22 two days before the official training camp for the qualifiers is to begin.
Change of plans
There are also concerns that playing in the WSH will put players’ training rhythm off. Hockey India has claimed that they have a plan B in place,which entails preparing juniors for the qualifiers in the extreme case of senior players insisting on playing the WSH.
This sounds uncannily similar to the threat held out in January last year during the strike,one that failed to deter the players. This time,with more than 100 Indians signing up for the WSH,one wonders where the federation will make up the numbers from. And even if they could,what would be the level of that team? Also,while Nobbs was earlier supposed to watch the ongoing under-21 tournament in Malaysia to identify potential players,he skipped that meet and so has no idea about junior India players in action.
There are other issues at stake as well. Despite hockey being conferred the title of the national sport,there is no denying the fact that it doesn’t pay to be a professional hockey player in the country,unless they manage to get a decent job most of which are only with the government departments and PSUs. For a league that promises money in lakhs for the 30-day event upto Rs 10 lakh per player in the top category this is big,by hockey standards.
Let’s face it,financial security is important. And Indian hockey players belong either to the middle or lower-middle class. With the kind of turmoil the game is in nationally whether administrative,selection or performance wise which player would want to risk his future?
Let’s be clear: everyone wants to play for India; there is no bigger honour than that,and that remains the first priority for all. But you cannot force a player to choose between national honour and financial security, says another senior player,who has signed up with WSH.
Most importantly,for the players,it’s their employers who have the final say,since none can afford to lose their jobs. We haven’t been told anything by our companies. And as long as there is no stopping from them,no player will think twice about playing the WSH, is the common refrain.
The peripheral issues
For a long time now,Indian hockey has only had negatives to talk about. Whether it was differences within the team,the pittance paid as reward for winning a title or the administrative wrangles,there has hardly been any positive news about the sport. Now the WSH a glitzier,richer and racier version of the Premier Hockey League (PHL) that died a premature death promises to bring back the crowds to the sport,bring in money and glamour and put it back in national consciousness. Sources have claimed that of the eight city-based franchises that will be participating in the league,two have been bought by Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Suniel Shetty.
And with the games being played across India on home and away basis,the WSH will have a pan-Indian appeal that the PHL failed to bring. All these are incentives enough to draw players. Nobbss warning to the Sports Authority of India which in turn sought denial of permission to the national campers from the sports ministry has been shot down. Sports Minister Ajay Maken has made it clear that the government will not get involved in the issue,even as the FIH continues to term the series an unsanctioned event. With administrators refusing to seek a compromise and let go of ego issues,the players,it seems,are ready yet again to take charge of their futures themselves.
(Inputs: Shamik Chakrabarty,Kabir Mandrekar)