Veterans hail Hockey Premier League, hope it causes revival of the national game
Many hockey stars of yesteryear faded from the memory of their fans as India’s international stock plummeted in the game. Who cares for losers but then stalwarts like Balbir Singh (Sr), Mohammad Shahid, Ashok Kumar, Zafar Iqbal, Harbinder Singh, represented the times when hockey attracted full houses and media attention. To be a hockey star was as big as playing cricket for India. And then, the game was lost, the audience dwindled alarmingly, India figured at the bottom of the international table. Balbir wept in solitude, Shahid would skip meals in disgust every time Indian hockey was devastated by teams like England and New Zealand.
Penury marked many hockey players’ retirement life. “Recognition was rare,” laments Shahid, who at the peak of his career, mocked at four or five defenders with a deft body dodge or magical dribble, even on uneven fields. He was a modern hockey wizard! Shahid is delighted that his beloved game has taken a step, even if a tiny one, through the Hockey India League (HIL). Players like V. R. Raghunath and Sardar Singh commanded astonishing price at the historic auction. Sardar, the highest paid, went for $78000 and Raghunath $76000. Among other big names were Moritz Fuertse ($75,500), Teun de Nooijer ($66,000) and Jamie Dwyer ($60,000). “It is amazing. It is a great initiative to boost the image of hockey all over the world. I look at it as a revival of hockey in India and survival elsewhere,” comments former international Jagbir Singh.
The HIL will feature five teams — Delhi Wave Riders, Mumbai Magicians, Jaypee Punjab Warriors, Ranchi Rhinos and Uttar Pradesh Wizards, each team permitted ten foreign players. A galaxy of current stars and some of the biggest names from the past as coaches will contribute to make the HIL a spectacle. “There is glamour, money, action. The young generation can look forward to this great game,” says Zafar Iqbal, member of the 1980 Olympic gold medal winning team. Hockey, for all its glory, was never a career option in India. “A government job was a dream,” remembered Zafar. Said Jagbir, “India colours, then Olympics, Arjuna Award, Asian XI, World XI, the ambitions grew with time. But there was no money. Now it is passion for some, profession for many. It is an industry. There was enough potential in hockey and the game was waiting for the corporate sector to step in. The product (HIL) has been nicely conceptualised.” World hockey will benefit from the success of the HIL. Even the International Hockey Federation (FIH) accepts the importance of India and Pakistan. The FIH granted wild card entries to these two teams at the Champions Trophy and both made it to the semi-finals with Pakistan ending up with a bronze. Nine players from Pakistan will figure in the inaugural HIL.
Delhi, Jalandhar, Lucknow, Mumbai and Ranchi will be the venues. “Holland has 750 hockey turfs and it reflects in its success. We will also have that culture once the HIL makes its mark. Cricket has IPL-specific stadiums. HIL will have too,” says Jagbir. The league will have 34 high octane matches with prime time telecast. A composite hockey stick costs anything between Rs.10000 and 20000 today but the social recognition for the game will open the doors for more and more sponsorship and player base in India. “The HIL should provide that platform. The game needed this boost and is looking bright,”
Zafar is optimistic. Robust tactics and skilful manoeuvring will set the game’s tempo at the HIL. “Our youngsters will learn by playing alongside the big names from other countries. Imagine setting up a ball for Jamie Dwyer or learning from coaches like Barry Dancer and Ric Charlesworth. The game will gain from HIL,” he emphasises. The world’s best hockey players will grace the HIL. “Money is important but no purpose will be served if the youngsters don’t learn and improve. HIL is fine but I want India to excel at the world stage. The game should not be hurt. We are placed at the bottom. If the HIL can help India climb the ranks it will indeed be great. Hockey will go up only when India wins,” surmises Shahid, promising to follow every match of the 28-day league that starts on January 14.