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Sport

Hockey truly comes home

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FRESH GROUND: Action from the just-concluded Hockey India League. While Sardar Singh's (left) reputation as the playmaker extraordinaire was further reaffired, the emergence of teenaged Mandeep Singh (right, top) bodes well for the game

Proving all the skeptics wrong, thumbing a nose at the strangulating administrative morass of Indian hockey, the new and shiny Hockey India League captured the imagination of the success-starved fan of the stick sport. Experts feel the innovative idea could well help pull the sport in India out of its downward spiral.

The Astro Turf Stadium in Morabadi (Ranchi) was bursting at its seams on Sunday night. The stands wore a rich maroon and golden hue as fans came in their home colours - flags in hands, bandanas on heads, bugles and vuvuzelas tucked under their armpits, eyes shining with frenzied passion. The Ranchi Rhinos were playing Delhi Waveriders in the final of the Hockey India League and the city which swears by hockey - when not talking about MS Dhoni's exploits - was itching to test its lung power.

It did and you could hear the roar way down in Tupudana, the southern suburbs of Jharkhand's capital, when the Rhinos - these odd-toed ungulates don't live in the forests of the Chotanagpur plateau but somehow the name struck a chord - got the measure of the favourites Waveriders in a rocking contest.

Rhinos are a team owned by a Kolkata business house, were led by Germany's Mauritz Fuertse and had just one local star, Birendra Lakra, to get the 'city connect' going. That was enough for the fans, starved of top-quality sporting action, to spread their arms and say 'you are home, we love you'.

That in many ways signified the success of this league and of the idea to take the semifinals and final to a region which has always nurtured this sport which recently found itself in danger of being knocked out of the Olympics.

The bonding between the team members was surprising in many ways, across the five teams. The fans roared when Fuertse raised both his hands and exhorted the crowd to support them before the match began. Nobody probably celebrated the victory more than the foreign recruits - Fuertse, England's drag flick star Ashley Jackson, Dutchman Floris Evers, Spaniard Francisco Cortes, South African Austin Smith and Australian Fergus Kavanagh - as they jumped, danced, took several victory laps and hugged their Indian teammates as the stadium revelled in neverending fireworks.

Up in the southern section of the stands, inside the hospitality box, were several smiling faces - of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) officials, including president Leandre Negre, who had been invited to witness this league, of the Hockey India secretary Narinder Batra and his team members and several former India Olympians who were there as guests or TV commentators. They knew they had witnessed something that would give a boost to the sport, in India and beyond. It had given everyone the belief.

"Awesome, amazing, " Negre gushed as other FIH officials recorded the scenes of wild celebrations on their smartphones.
Indian coach Michael Nobbs watched intently all through, nodding his head at times. So, what did he think of this league? Is it here to stay? Will it change anything? "Yes, it is here to say. I'm surprised by the pace at which some of these matches have been played. The quality of hockey was very high. You expect that when so many top players of the world are playing but it is possible that some lessons from the league will percolate down into world hockey. It is very interesting, very encouraging. " Nobbs told TOI.

But will it benefit the Indians? "They are learning from players like Jamie Dwyer, Teun De Nooijer, Mauritz Fuertse and Ashley Jackson. They are learning to change strategy midway, learning to think more, sort out players. Some young Indians players have impressed, so let us see where it takes us. It is still early to comment on that, " he added.

Former India players Viren Rasquinha and AB Subbaiah had their own take and they sounded worried about the lack of a quality goalkeeper in India ranks. "This is what we have been talking about these past few days. Where are the goalkeepers? Chetri (Bharat) is a spent force. Sreejesh, who played for UP Wizards is the best in the country but even he does not match up to the world stars like Jaap Stockman and Nicolas Jacobi. The Indians will have to look at this seriously, " Subbaiah said.

"Stockman is very methodical. He studies the videos of his opponents and prepares for the match. He doesn't even listen to the coach. It was good to see Stockman and other foreign goalkeepers work with the Indians during training. It would have helped them surely, " Rasquinha pointed out.

Both Rasquinha and Subbaiah were also critical of the form of senior India players. "You can see that the time for change has come. Players like Shivendra Singh, Tushar Khandkar are a spent force. You have to look at the future if you want to do well in the 2016 Olympics. Some of these young India players are very good, " both added.

Among the upcoming India players, the name of 17-year-old Mandeep Singh was almost always taken first. "Amazing talent isn't he? But he is very raw, needs to work very hard. Let's see how he shapes up, " Nobbs said.

Besides Mandeep, the former Olympians talked about Malik Singh, Gurinder Singh, Gurmail Singh, Pardeep Mor, Nithin Thimaaiah, Manpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Imran Khan as the players to nurture for the future. "These players have looked good. . . there are others too. They should be fast-tracked into the Indian team, " they said.

Former India forward Jagbir Singh, who was with the coaching unit of Punjab Warriors, said the coming up of young players was a natural progression. "Most of the current senior India players came up during the Premier Hockey League. The young players know that HIL is the ticket to the Indian team, " he said.

And that is the gain for Indian hockey. The players have made good money but more importantly, they played alongside and against some of the best in the world. It's the tactical inputs - from the foreign players and coaches - which will help India lift their game.

As for the game's popularity, the fact that 23 million watched the final live on TV gives hope that there are still quite a few takers for hockey.

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