VR Raghunath sunk deep in his chair and let out an exasperated sigh. Three years ago, at the inaugural auction of Hockey India League (HIL), the drag-flicker was the subject of an intense bidding war between Delhi Waveriders and UP Wizards. He was ultimately snapped up for $78,000 by the Lucknow-based side.
On Thursday, Raghunath found himself on the other side of the auction table. Retained by his side for $53,000, he acted as a consultant to his team. This time, he was among the ones who ignited a bidding war for his India teammate, Akashdeep Singh. With Dabang Mumbai and Ranchi Rays refusing to back down, Wizards eventually ended up shelling out $84,000 for the striker.
There was some irony that a drag-flicker would bid fervently for a striker. But that perhaps might be the way forward for not just the league, but the sport in general. If the auctions are anything to go by, strikers seem to have found renewed importance at a time when their relevance was threatened by the emergence of short-corner specialists, which teams the world over felt was a better goal-scoring opportunity.
In the upcoming edition of HIL, field goals will count for two whereas goals scored from penalty corners will continue to be counted as one. The impact of the regulation was visible at the auctions, where the franchises preferred to go for proven strikers and defenders, as opposed to drag-flickers with decent defensive abilities in the previous editions.
Barring Sandeep Singh ($81,000 to Ranchi Rays) and Rupinderpal Singh ($68,000 to Delhi Waveriders), none of the drag-flickers managed to excite the franchises. Even foreign short-corner specialists did not seem to be a part of the teams’ plans, as they did not hesitate in splurging big bucks on forwards.
German Florian Fuchs, a part of the auction for the first time, was bought by Dabang Mumbai for a whopping $96,000 while his compatriot Tobias Hauke was taken by UP Wizards for the same amount.
The biggest buy of the day, also a German and a forward, was Moritz Fuerste, who went to Kalinga Lancers for $105,000, making him the costliest buy in HIL ever. “With the new rules, it’s only logical that the teams went for proven strikers,” Mumbai mentor Viren Rasquinha said.
Not just the proven performers, young Indian strikers with limited experience too have demanded big bucks. Mandeep Singh, who has been left out of the India squad recently, went to Delhi for $70,000, while injury-prone forward Gurwinder Singh Chandi was taken by Punjab Warriors for $75,000. Even Jasjit Singh Kular, a versatile player who can play as a striker as well as defender, took home a cheque of $65,000 after he was picked up by Punjab.
“Indian goal-scorers will play an important role as well. There is a scarcity of good Indian strikers so you will see them going for good money,” Rasquinha said.
Such was the demand for forwards that even players from countries not famous for hockey were snapped up by the teams. Austria’s Benjamin Stanzl was bought by Delhi for $35,000 while Mumbai went for Sweden’s Johan Bjorkman for $10,000.
Former India captain Dilip Tirkey too said the move would ensure strikers would play an important role again.
“It’s an interesting rule. Strikers, who were losing importance because of the drag-flickers, will play a crucial role now on,” Tirkey, a penalty corner-specialist himself, said. It’s a regulation that was introduced following ‘increasing concerns’ over the emphasis laid on penalty corners and drag-flickers. Though the more traditional art of goal scoring, via open play, continues to yield more results, teams have relied heavily on short corners. At times, the team selection has revolved around the presence of drag-flick specialists.
If successful, it is likely that the regulation will be implemented internationally, International Hockey Federation (FIH) CEO Kelly Fairweather hinted. The FIH has previously used tournaments like the HIL, Premier Hockey League and Euro Hockey League as a platform to test new regulations before implementing them on the world stage.
“We have been trying to find out different ways to see how we can bring the relevance of field goals once again. Drag flicks were assuming a lot of significance and teams relied too heavily on it. Our attempt is to encourage open play and since this was a significant change, FIH’s competitions and rules committee were consulted,” Fairweather said. \
“The Competitions Committee has considered different scoring methods previously but decided not to change. However, this initiative by HIL gives an opportunity to see if there is any merit in extending the system being adopted, or perhaps a derivative.”