The Premier Hockey League (PHL,2005-08) was conceptualized to provide the impetus that Indian hockey so richly deserved but fell by the wayside after a few years. The inaugural World Series Hockey (WSH) conducted earlier this year has been a similar attempt to showcase the game and attract television audiences. The tournament,though bereft of the leading lights of Indian and international hockey,was able to generate substantial interest. In centers like Mumbai,Bangalore,Bhopal,Pune and Chennai the attendance at matches was extraordinary and showed that the passion for hockey was still alive.
For a player there is nothing more invigorating than to experience full houses and enjoy a reasonable TV viewership.
Many youngsters rose to the occasion and some of the golden oldies made the most of their final tryst with stardom.
Joga Singh,Walmiki and Ajmer Singh became heroes in Mumbai though none of them may have represented the country. The same could be said for so many others who turned out for their respective teams. The tempo of the matches and competitiveness kept one engrossed. The format of matches was innovative with four quarters (instead of two halves) and time-outs thrown in for good measure. Home and away matches were conducted under lights and the ambience at the stadia was celebratory and festive. Lucrative prizes announced for the winners and appearance fees for the players added zing to the proceedings. The next edition of the WSH is scheduled for early part of 2013.
The recent announcement by the rival body,Hockey India,informing about a similar extravaganza titled the Hockey India League (HIL) has met with mixed feelings. On the one hand there is elation since the tournament will place on view the best global talent and the matches would be conducted in a carnival atmosphere making it a joy for the spectators to be at the stadium. Yet the announcement leaves an unsavory taste since the dates of the HIL overlap with those announced by the organizers of the WSH.
The HIL seems to be on a firm wicket with the Federation of International Hockey (FIH) providing a window for the conduct of this tournament and also permitting international stars to participate. Importantly a few major business houses have stepped forward to support the franchises that have been identified by Hockey India.
The TV channel that has been signed up for covering rights has an impeccable reputation and in fact was the first channel to outline the format of the tournament in the form of the PHL. The HIL has the potential to be the tournament that can change the face of Indian hockey and in fact create a pedestal for the game globally. For Indian players who have struggled to get an opportunity to play against top class opponents this will be a godsend. Playing alongside and against players like Jamie Dwyer from Australia,Santi Freixa from Spain,Philipp Zeller from Germany and Teun De Noijer from Holland will be an opportunity to imbibe skills and other abilities in ones own backyard. The master coaches of the world including Ric Charlesworth of Australia and Markus Weisse of Germany could find themselves as coaches of some of the franchises and our own homebred coaches can deliberate team strategy and chalk out match tactics in esteemed company.
The officiating umpires in India could also come close up with the best in the business. They would do well to emulate David Gentles of Australia and Ged Curran of Great Britain,who officiated during the London Olympic final recently.
There exists a European Hockey League,started in 2007-08,which attracts the best clubs across 12 leading countries in the continent. Outside of this there is no club hockey tournament that can showcase world hockey in all its finery.
The HIL stands at the cusp of providing World hockey with a platform to promote the concept of club hockey and further popularize the game a la IPL in cricket. Besides a billion viewers in India,the TV coverage of the HIL can attract global viewership depending on the scale of its conduct. It is a fervent prayer that the HI and FIH position this tournament on dates that do not clash with the plans of the IHF for the WSH.
The WSH and HIL could co-exist with equal degree of success. Currently the loyalties of players,officials and organizers are divided between HI and IHF and the fear of confrontation and reprimand always lurks.
Better sense must prevail and players and officials be permitted to play in either tournament or both should they so desire,without fear of discrimination. As Hockey India embarks on a important journey it is essential that they spread positivity by being flexible and statesmanlike in their decisions. The goodwill generated will hold the HIL in good stead.
The writer is a three-time hockey Olympian and former captain of the Indian hockey team.