Flights, camera, action
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After a dazzling performance in a practice game during which he set up an exquisite goal, the bald and bearded Aussie mid-fielder, Rob Hammond, again grabbed attention during the cool-down session. Only this time not on account of his fierce looks or slick stick-work, but his impromptu batting.
As team-mate Dharamvir Singh scooped a ball at him, Hammond changed his front-on hockey stance to sideways one and dispatched the half-volley back over the head of the 'bowler'. Next one met the full face of the bat (stick) followed by a flick off the hip to square leg where his captain Jamie Dwyer was sitting.
It ended as abruptly as it had started unexpectedly, but two days before the start of the IPL-inspired Hockey India League (HIL), as the DJ did 'sound-check' on the side, that brief session of cricket on the National Stadium astro turf was maybe ironic but not really incongruous.
For looking to regain a foothold in the cricket-mad country, Indian hockey's latest and most ambitious initiative is modelled almost completely on IPL. Thirty-four matches, 28 days, five franchises and one objective: to make a dent in mass consciousness.
Optimism is running high. "There is no other league like the HIL in world hockey," says India coach Michael Nobbs. "The money involved, the professionalism, there are no parallels at this moment. All international players who play hockey want to be part of this," he adds.
New Zealand forward Simon Child, who is part of the Delhi Waveriders team, also feels that HIL can do for hockey what IPL did for cricket. "IPL has shown the way, now the HIL is trying to professionalise hockey," Child insists.
The IPL model, however, has its own set of risks and challenges. Such as a highly exacting travel schedule that the players aren't used to. In hockey, the marquee tournaments — the Olympics, the World Cup and the Champions Trophy — are played at one venue. And while the professional leagues in Europe have a home-away format, that requires travelling, it's neither draining (the league is spread over 7-8 months) nor extensive (the size of host countries is significantly smaller). HIL's itinerary, however, is something the players wouldn't have experienced before — not certainly to this extent. Even before the kickoff, there are a few signs of it.
10,000 kms and counting
Australia captain Jamie Dwyer began his 10,000-plus kilometre journey from Queensland to New Delhi last Saturday, landed in the Capital on Sunday and travelled another 380km to reach Jalandhar. Still feeling the effects of jet lag, he braved the chill in the air, shrugged off the tiredness and took part in the light training session along with his new teammates on Monday.
In the week since, he made a visit to the Golden Temple — 80-odd kilometres from the team base in Jalandhar —and then embark on a seven-hour road trip to Delhi once again for their first match against the Waveriders. Seven days in the subcontinent and he can be forgiven for thinking of himself as a backpacker more than a professional hockey player.
However, for Dwyer, and indeed others, that's just a slight insight into what to expect over the next one month. A maze of domestic flights and road travel awaits the top hockey players from the world. "The whole concept of taking a flight every 48 hours, checking in and out of hotels and focus on hockey at the same time isn't something that all of us are used to. So, it'll take some time to get accustomed," Dwyer, who'll play for the Punjab Warriors, says.
Players from other teams too will be on constant move. For instance, Ranchi Rhinos begin their campaign away from home against the Warriors in Jalandhar on January 16. Since Jalandhar doesn't have a airport of its own, the Rhinos will take a flight to Amritsar and follow it up with a bus ride. A couple of days later, they'll then travel approximately 1,500km back to their base in Ranchi for their first home match against Mumbai Magicians on January 18 before setting off for another 700-odd kilometre journey to play Uttar Pradesh Wizards in Lucknow on the 20th. By the time the league ends, they will have travelled roughly 10,000km.
"It's just play-travel, play-travel, play-travel," Mumbai Magicians coach Ric Charlesworth lamented. "Earlier, when it was six teams we had to play 10 matches and the travelling was a bit less. But the revised schedule has increased it a bit so there's a lot of travelling. Add to that the delays because of the fog you have here in winter. It'll be challenging, no doubt."
More recovery time
Though the travel itinerary is much less compared to the IPL's — 19,000km per cricketer during the duration of the tournament — the quick tempo of hockey means that the players need more time to recover, according to Dwyer. "The nature of the game is such that it takes a lot out of you in the 70 minutes and you need enough time to recover and get fit for the next match. I think the team doctors and physios will play a very important role in ensuring the players remain fit for the entire tournament."
Nobbs chooses to look at the positive side of it. "These hectic schedules may prove to be a good thing. The squads are 24-players strong, and only 16 players can play in a given match. So the schedule makes rotations necessary and young players also end up getting enough chances."
But surely a longer, more spread-out league that will give the players a breathing space will be more welcome. Nobbs doesn't think so. "Maybe four of five more days, but not more than that. The league needs to be sharp, absolutely exciting and saleable. Too much of good thing can sometimes be boring."
An IPL-style league also pitchforks a player into instant media focus. Practice sessions and matches are often sandwiched between — or followed/preceded by — photoshoots and press conferences. These never-ending commitments present the hockey players, many of whom are introverts and unassuming, with a totally different challenge. It's a whole new world for them.
Take the case of SV Sunil. Known to be shy and quiet, Sunil comes to life on the turf. In the TV promo for the HIL, Sunil is seen balancing the ball on his stick before darting past a few players, something he is adept at. But in front of the camera, it's not just the moves but the expressions as well that have to be perfect.
"Bas kar liya," he said, the shyness in his voice apparent. "There were a couple of retakes. I took some time getting used to the camera angles. But I thoroughly enjoyed the shoot." Sandeep Singh, quite a showman, chipped in: "The smoke effect they've given makes it look even better."
As much as IPL is credited with bringing money into cricket and popularising it furthermore, it's also discredited, often enough, with spoiling young players. Has HIL insured itself against such dangers?
Nobbs reasons: "One thing is that while the money is certainly good in the HIL, it's not anywhere near what it's in the IPL. But the primary reason why HIL won't have an adverse effect on a young player's mind is because in hockey, it's primarily about playing for the country. That's how the game traditionally has been."
India vice-captain VR Raghunath, one of the rising stars of the game, says there are challenges and distractions but they will all be surmounted once the tournament begins.
"These are a few things that are necessary to make hockey a mass sport. It seems new right now but we'll get used to it. One thing I am sure about is that once the tournament begins, no one will be thinking about the photoshoots or the ads. After all, this is about hockey."
Owners: Wave Group
Coach: Ajay K Bansal
Marquee player: Sardar Singh
Notable players: Oskar Deecke, Simon Child, Gurwinder Chandi
Total spending: $601,900
Despite not having the services of Dutch legend Taeke Taekema, out because of injury, there is enough quality in this side led by arguably the best playmaker Sardar Singh. However, an all-Indian coaching staff, the only one in the tournament, led by AK Bansal has its task cut-out. Having the best players will account for nothing if the coaches are not able to bring the best out of them.
Owners: Jaypee Group
Coach: Barry Dancer
Marquee player: Jamie Dwyer
Notable players: SV Sunil, Mark Knowles, Jaap Stockmann
Total spending: $639,600
They have a
wealth of experience in defence with triple-Olympian Mark Knowles of Australia in their ranks and in Jaap Stockmann — currently the best goalkeeper in the world — on board. The team is coached by Barry Dancer, who guided Australia to Olympic glory in 2004. The Warriors have managed to attract some of the best domestic talent as well.
Owners: Patel-Uniexcel Group
Coach: Gregg Clark
Marquee player: Moritz Fuertse
Notable players: Ashley Jackson, Floris Evers, Birendra Lakra
Total spending: $624,050
Over 1,000 people turned up at the stadium in Ranchi to watch Rhinos practice against a Jharkhand XI on Friday. The team officials say Rhinos's first home match against Mumbai Magicians on January 18 is already sold out. The state's tribal belt has produced players who have represented India, so the craze is understandable. Ironically, the Rhinos are banking on young talent from India instead of the tried and tested players.
Uttar Pradesh Wizards
Coach: Roelant Oltmans
Marquee player: Teun De Nooijer
Notable players: VR Raghunath, Wouter Jolie, David Alegre
Total spending: $646,200
Along with Punjab and Delhi, they are tipped to be one of the contenders. Dutch coach Oltmans has managed to draw the best talent from his country. They are slightly short of experience in the midfield and seem to be relying heavily on their three foreign players in this department — David Alegre, Edward Ockenden and Sander Baart). However, a strong defence and forward line more than compensates for the weak-link.
Owners: Dabur Group
Coach: Ric Charlesworth
Marquee player: Sandeep Singh
Notable players: Glenn Turner, Rasheed Mahmood, PR Sreejesh
Total spending: $590,700
They began their camp late and some of their key players weren't able to join in time. Coach Charlesworth is expecting the full team to be present by Sunday, just three days before their opener against Delhi. Nevertheless, the Magicians are dark horses. They do not boast of big names but have utility players in most positions. Will Charlesworth's magic work?
34 matches, 28 days
14: Delhi Waveriders vs Jaypee Punjab Warriors (Delhi, 20:00)
15: Rest day
16: Jaypee Punjab Warriors vs Ranchi Rhinos
Delhi Waveriders vs Mumbai Magicians
17: Jaypee Punjab Warriors vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards (Jalandhar, 20:00)
18: Ranchi Rhinos vs Mumbai Magicians
19: Uttar Pradesh Wizards vs Delhi Waveriders (Lucknow, 11:30)
20: Uttar Pradesh Wizards vs Ranchi Rhinos
Mumbai Magicians Jaypee vs Punjab Warriors (Mumbai, 20:00)
21: Mumbai Magicians vs Delhi Waveriders (Mumbai, 20:00)
22: Jaypee Punjab Warriors vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards (Jalandhar, 20:00)
23: Ranchi Rhinos vs Delhi Waveriders
24: Ranchi Rhinos vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards (Ranchi, 18:00)
Jaypee Punjab Warriors vs Mumbai Magicians (Jalandhar, 20:00)
25: Rest Day
26: Uttar Pradesh Wizards vs Ranchi Rhinos
Delhi Waveriders vs Mumbai Magicians
27: Uttar Pradesh Wizards vs Jaypee Punjab Warriors (Lucknow, 15:00)
28: Ranchi Rhinos vs Mumbai Magicians
29: Delhi Waveriders vs Jaypee Punjab Warriors (Delhi, 20:00)
30: Mumbai Magicians vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards (Mumbai, 18:00)
Delhi Waveriders vs Ranchi Rhinos
31: Mumbai Magicians vs Jaypee Punjab Warriors (Mumbai, 20:00)
1: Ranchi Rhinos vs Delhi Waveriders
2: Uttar Pradesh Wizards vs Mumbai Magicians (Lucknow, 15:00)
Ranchi Rhinos Jaypee vs Punjab Warriors (Ranchi, 20:00)
3: Uttar Pradesh Wizards vs Delhi Waveriders
4: Jaypee Punjab Warriors vs Ranchi Rhinos
5: Jaypee Punjab Warriors vs Delhi Waveriders
Mumbai Magicians vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards (Mumbai, 20:00)
6: Rest Day
7: Delhi Waveriders vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards (Delhi, 18:00)
Mumbai Magicians vs Ranchi Rhinos
8: Rest day
9: Semi-Final 1 (Ranchi, 17:00)
Semi-Final 2 (Ranchi, 20:00)
10: 3rd/4th Place (Ranchi, 17:00)
Final (Ranchi, 20:00)
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