A successful narrative

Written by Daksh Panwar | daksh panwar | Updated: Feb 24 2013, 06:34am hrs
An incident in the second quarter of the opening match of the Hockey India League (HIL) in New Delhi on January 14 neatly summed up the build-up to the event many considered to be the struggling national sports last roll of the dice. The Delhi Waveriders were laying siege to the Punjab Warriors D at one end, oblivious to the fact that almost the entire stadium at that time was looking in the other direction where two intruders had run on to the pitch, demanding eight Pakistani players in the HIL be sent back in the wake of the killings of two Indian soldiers at the LoC. As photojournalists, assembled in that corner, furiously clicked pictures of the intruders and their banners, hockey, admittedly uninspiring on that given day, slipped into the background on its own stage.

However, since in recent memory, Indian hockey had been in the news for all the wrong reasonsmismanagement, corruption and underperformance at the world stagethe incident merged seamlessly with the sports narrative. Which is why, from the vantage point of the National Stadiums press box, the HILs prospects looked decidedly bleak on that cold January evening. It appeared a fairly safe assumption that by the time the controversy would subside, the tournament, too, wouldve slipped out of the public consciousness.

Twenty-seven days and 33 matches later, those assessmentsnot malicious but prematurehad failed spectacularly, as in front of a smitten Ranchi, both the local team and Indian hockey emerged triumphant. In that period, a combination of luck (which had looked rotten in the beginning), foresight and professionalism (factors traditionally absent when it comes to hockeys administration) turned things around swiftly.

The tale of the HILs bad luck begins well before the tournament. After the national team finished last in the Olympics, they had a hard time selling the concept to prospective franchisees. Till mid-November, only four of their six teams were sold three regional (Jalandhar, Ranchi and Lucknow) and one metro (Delhi)before Mumbai was bought late. The Bangalore/Chennai slot remained unsold. Once the tournament started, the very limited playing field saw four out of five teams qualifying for the semi-finals after three-and-a-half-weeks of gruelling league stage, a concept that seemed ridiculous on paper. However, it made the rather hurriedly-staged tournament logistically less demanding. Moreover, even though fans from the south might have felt left out, fewer teams in the first edition helped in easier brand-building among the neutrals.

But the masterstroke, chiefly by default, was small-town teams. Not only do places such as Ranchi, Lucknow and Jalandhar the traditional centres of hockey, but unlike Delhi and Mumbai they also have very little exposure when it comes to hosting top-flight sport. For sport lovers at these centres, the glitzy HIL with a carnival atmosphere and night matches was as big as it could get. It was their IPL. Inadvertently though, hockey also rediscovered its roots in the process, and a roadmap for the future: that its biggest market lies in the provinces. On that turf, it can compete with cricket, as the Ranchi experiment showed in the playoffs.

Encouraged by the response to the initial few games in Ranchi, the HIL decided to conduct the semi-finals in the Jharkhand capital. But that meant hosting the final the next day elsewhere would be a huge logistical challenge, not to mention extremely taxing on the teams. Therefore, it was decided to give Ranchi the final as well. As it turned out, they couldnt have planned this better.

Its always unfortunate to see fans standing in queues for hours and braving sporadic lathi-charges, but there is sadistic irony to it: In India, its the sureshot sign of a sport being in the pink of health. And so, 5,000 lucky Ranchi-ites, flaunting the fruit of their labour (connections)a ticket (pass) turned up prim and proper at the Astroturf stadium to watch the final. An estimated 25,000, who couldnt get tickets or passes, saw it on the big screen inside the adjacent football stadium.

TV viewership also attests the claim that the HIL was a big hit, with 2.27 crore people watching the event in the first two weeksto put into perspective, the figure is 20 lakh more than Euro 2012s aggregate viewership in the country. On YouTube, where it was telecast live across the globe, HILs channel received over 4,00,000 hits, a significant chunk coming from Holland and Germany.

If it was successful as a commercial endeavour, the real gain from the HIL could be the talent it threw up and honed. Playing under and along with the worlds best, youngsters such as Ranchi Rhinos Mandeep Singh and Punjabs Malak Singh came out of nowhere, and into the Indian team, thanks to their performance in the HIL, while established Indian names enhanced their reputations, showing they were on a par with foremost exponents of the game. As the players started understanding each other better, hockey too evolved, resulting in some breathtaking goals and sensational saves. Overall, it was a huge learning curve for Indians as they got to play the European style of hockey, something the national coach Michael Nobbs wants them to do in the build-up to the Rio Games.

However, one of the drawbacks of these compact IPL-style leagues is that they arent played over eight to nine months unlike the traditional leagues in Europe. Which make the chances of unlearning quite high. The challenge, therefore, over the next 11 months will be to maintain these standards.

As for the league, there are a few changes it needs to incorporate. The timeouts in the final quarter were a killjoy, as they broke the rhythm of a game just when it hit the crescendo. Moreover, the HIL could learn from the IPL and give the top two teams in the league stage a second chance in the payoffs to reward consistency: The top two teams face each other for a place in the final, and the loser plays the winner of the qualifier between the third- and fourth-placed sides. the HIL has a template in the form of the IPL, it doesnt have to reinvent the wheel.

The league may do well to widen its reach. Its likely that the southern franchise will be taken on the back of a successful first season, but Hockey India should also consolidate on the Ranchi experiment and target other hubs such as Raipur, Bhopal, Bhubaneswar and Kolkata. Adding a couple of teams to the existing five will require a slightly bigger window, which a willing International Hockey Federation will be happy to provide.

A lot is riding on the HIL. A vibrant professional league is paramount to hockeys survival as its close shave in the recent International Olympic Committee Executive Board vote earlier this week showed. As the FIH president Leandro Negre recently said: In 10 years, everyone will come to remember hockey in terms of before the HIL and after HIL.