To play or not to play, is the Hamlet-ian dilemma confronting the 150-odd Indian players contracted to the first edition of World Series Hockey (WSH) as the countdown to the lucrative tournament that will run from 17 December-22 January enters the home stretch.

In a fix: (from left) Sardar Singh, Rajpal Singh (Photographs by Paul Kane/Getty Images) and Arjun Halappa. (By Julian Finney/Getty Images)

But what was seen as a way to develop and popularize hockey through an event like cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL), is now mired in controversy and uncertainty. At the root of the problem lies the factionalism that has divided Indian hockey since 2008, when the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) suspended the IHF and set up an alternative apex body for the game, Hockey India (HI), which was promptly given international recognition by the Union sports ministry and Federation Internationale de Hockey (FIH). A 2010 judgement by the Delhi high court, however, deemed the derecognition of the IHF invalid, effectively allowing both parties to fight it out for control of Indian hockey. The IOA and sports ministry were forced to acknowledge the IHF as the rightful federation as a result, but the FIH continues to recognize only HI.

HI currently handles all the international engagements for the sport, and the WSH was IHF’s way of staying involved with the sport.

IHF-Nimbus announced their tournament schedule last year, choosing a free period for the national players between the FIH Champions Trophy and the camp for the pre-Olympic qualifiers. But HI recently called a national camp for the 15-26 February Olympic qualifiers to coincide with the WSH, and threatened that players who did not report would forfeit their chance to represent the country. The FIH, on its part, began exerting pressure on various national federations to rein in their national players, the Pakistan Hockey Federation included.

On Wednesday, the WSH suffered a jolt when HI released a letter signed by six national players—Sardar Singh, Tushar Khandekar, Yuvraj Walmiki, Sreejesh, Bharat Chetri and Sandeep Singh— saying they would be attending the camp instead of playing in the WSH. For the WSH organizers, this could be a fatal blow, more so if more national team players/campers follow suit. With players standing to make megabucks, it will, however, take a really patriotic or scared player to wish away the bonanza.

The WSH is offering unprecedented money for a 35-day effort (Rs 10-15 lakh as playing fees on an average). To counter HI, the WSH has recently upped the stakes for national players, offering 5 lakh to every WSH player in the Indian team for the Olympic qualifiers, an additional 5 lakh to the same players if India qualify, 50 lakh to be divided equally among WSH players in the Indian team if the team wins a bronze at the Olympics, with the amount going up to 1 crore for a silver and 2 crore for gold.

The uncertainty and tension is, however, taking a toll on the Indian players—“there is a lot of mistrust" among them and “everyone is keeping their cards close to their chest", say some players who did not want to be named.

Reacting to the latest development, former India captain and coach Joaquim Carvalho, a key player coordinator for the WSH, said: “Why only six? What about the remaining players? We also have letters from the players saying that they will play. These players (who have pulled out) should be writing to the WSH instead of Hockey India since they are contracted to us. Players know they have to play for the country but they also know they have to take care of their financial security. The show will go on…"

The organizers have unveiled their eight teams, featuring some top national players like Arjun Halappa, coaches and four franchise sponsors. No big corporations, incidentally, have come forward to sponsor the franchises, meaning no megabucks are coming in. Nimbus will reportedly hold stakes in a couple of franchises, but once the IHF-HI issue is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the franchise owners could be persuaded to sell their stakes to bigger sponsors.

HI has already dubbed the inaugural WSH a “veteran’s league", and this is partly true. Former Indian hockey captains Viren Rasquinha and Dhanraj Pillay are coming out of retirement to play in the league, and because the FIH forced several current international players not to sign up, some of the international players in the league, like Australian Olympic gold medallist (2004) Brent Livermore, are past their prime.

If most of the national players do indeed play, HI will have a major dilemma on its hands—it will have to field a substandard team for the qualifiers, or recant its current position. This is what the IHF is banking on. National coach Michael Nobbs has expressed fears that the WSH will hamper the team’s preparations, a view seconded by national team player Rajpal Singh.

Nobbs may have a point. History shows how some Indian cricketers missed the West Indies tour owing to tiredness or injury after the last IPL and subsequently collapsed in England. The WSH, however, has a good counter argument. “They (the WSH wards) will be better off playing against some of the top names in world hockey in a competition rather than going through a routine national camp," says Vasudevan Bhaskaran, former India captain and coach, and now coach of WSH’s Bhopal team.

WSH officials are also saying that Indians will benefit from playing with foreign players and under foreign coaches—some of the top coaches in the world are part of the WSH, including India’s former Spanish coach Jose Brasa, and Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans.

The counter to this: Indians have in any case been playing for nearly 15 years in European leagues under top international coaches. Quality foreign players have also figured in the ESPN-sponsored Premier Hockey League here for a few seasons without there being any change in India’s fortunes.

In the overall context though, even if the WSH only delivers half of what it has promised, it’s a commendable commercial venture seeking to revive the dying national sport by endowing it with money, technical expertise and extensive television coverage.

Its future, though, will depend on how the IHF-HI imbroglio resolves itself, and which faction is ultimately recognized as the sole national federation. The sports ministry had tried to effect a rapprochement between the two at the behest of the Supreme Court and proposed a joint committee to administer the sport, but the compromise formula broke down. The case is still with the apex court.

As of now, the IHF is seemingly content to let HI handle India’s international engagements; it does not want to take the rap again if India miss the Olympic bus, as they did in 2008. But it does have a weapon it could use against HI later: allegations of irregularities connected with the Hero Honda FIH World Cup (Men) held in New Delhi in 2010, including an extra 5 crore that HI reportedly paid FIH as fees for the hosting rights. With a corporate entity backing the IHF, it will enjoy greater endurance in this possibly long drawn out skirmish.

The IHF has also filed a petition challenging its derecognition with the FIH judicial commission; it will be interesting to see which side is forced into a penalty corner. Several WSH players and coaches have also filed petitions in the respective national forums against the “restraint of trade" practices being enforced by their national federations at the behest of the FIH.

At a broader level, this could well be a no holds barred corporate war for the control of field hockey’s global marketing and telecast rights—the regional telecast rights are currently vested with Ten Sports—in the faction-ridden FIH. The rationale for all this bloodletting will surely emerge in due course.

Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.

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