In 2005, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) started the Premier Hockey League (PHL) with a promise to “usher in an era of dynamism and popularity for Indian hockey”. It lasted four years.
With the third version of a domestic hockey league taking off on 14 January under a different dispensation, the IHF can only fret while the rival Hockey India League (HIL) runs its course across 34 matches and 28 days.
Last year, the IHF had staged, with Nimbus Sport, its own revamped and modestly successful World Series Hockey (WSH) but was forced to reschedule it this season to avoid a clash with HIL.
In the interregnum, India’s fortunes have endured their most ignominious patch—this includes non-qualification and a last-place finish at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Yet those who stand to benefit from the current tournament are giving the same feel-good sound-bytes that have been aired in the past about how HIL can positively influence India’s fortunes.
“After a long time such an opportunity has come. Technical exchange of knowledge and skills between players and coaches would help improve the status of the game in the country,” said former India captain Pargat Singh about HIL. He was speaking as a television pundit.
Prior to the start of the tournament, Sardar Singh, who captains both the national team and Delhi Waveriders, one of the five franchises in the league, said: “HIL will not only provide financial security to the players but also popularize hockey in the country, which is an equally important motivation for the players.”
How is Hockey India’s (HI’s) league different from the IHF’s? For starters, it conducted an Indian Premier League (IPL)-style auction in which Sardar Singh went for $78,000 (around Rs.42.75 lakh), defender V.R. Raghunath got $76,000 and forward S.V. Sunil took $42,000, to name a few. Players and officials associated with the WSH were not invited, barring a few.
The five franchises have the cream of Indian and international players (minus the Pakistanis), in contrast to the WSH, which could field only fringe and former Indian players because the International Hockey Federation (FIH) did not support the league.
HI was also able to leverage its standing with the FIH, the since suspended Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and the presence of IPL board heavyweights like Arun Jaitley and Rajeev Shukla on its own board, to profitably sell its franchises to groups like Sahara India Pariwar, Jaypee Group, Wave Group, Burmans and Patel-Uniexcel Group. Hero MotoCorp took the title sponsorship and telecast rights went to ESPN Star Sports. The WSH franchise owners could only attract a motley mix of small and medium companies as franchise owners.
It was not all smooth sailing for HIL though as it failed to line up a sixth franchise (the WSH had eight) and managed a fifth venue, Mumbai, at only the eleventh hour by encouraging officials of the Mumbai Hockey Association, which was affiliated to the IHF, to cross over. The withdrawal of the Pakistani players due to protests by the Shiv Sena, among others, was an unforeseen setback. Their presence would have added glamour, just as it did in the WSH.
Crowds will no doubt be enthused to watch the likes of Jamie Dwyer, Teun de Nooijer, 2012 world player of the year and Olympic gold medallist Moritz Fuerste, Jaap Stockmann, Mark Knowles, Simon Orchard and Kieran Govers parade their skills at various locations. The tactical nous of the would-have-been India coach Ric Charlesworth, who guided Australia to the World Cup title in New Delhi three years ago, will also come under close scrutiny. Coach of the Mumbai Magicians, he has been hit hard by the decimation of his intermediate line because of the departure of four of his Pakistani wards.
It will take a while for the hastily assembled star cast in the various franchises to settle down. As Delhi Waveriders coach Ajay Kumar Bansal, the only Indian chief coach in HIL, observed after his team’s 2-1 win over Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the inaugural match in New Delhi on Monday: “We have a lot to take back from this game. We have some areas to improve such as defence.”
HI has won several rounds in its bruising battle with the IHF for control over the game in the subcontinent. The successful conduct of HIL could be another victory. But the IHF’s petition challenging the IOA’s 2012 decision to declare HI the official body for governing hockey in the country comes up before the Delhi high court in March. In September, the court had sought responses from the ministry of youth affairs and sports, IOA, HI and the FIH on the issue.
In 2010, the high court had termed the IOA’s derecognition of the IHF “illegal” and ordered its reinstatement, a decision, which was challenged later by HI in the apex court. The IHF’s petition against its suspension by the FIH is also being heard by the latter’s own judicial commission in London.
Which way will the cookie crumble? The resolution of the issue of who runs Indian hockey will, hopefully, come this year. An end to the impasse and bickering that has plunged the national game into its present stupor will perhaps help Indian hockey to make a new beginning.
Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports writer based in Mumbai.