The second Hero Hockey India League has reached the semi-final stage with the same four teams from 2013 facing off to challenge for the title today in Ranchi. Uttar Pradesh Wizards will play Delhi Waveriders and Jaypee Punjab Warriors will meet defending Champions Ranchi Rhinos; their third meeting in successive games, Punjab having won the first two.
Most players and coaches have stated that the second edition has seen a much closer competition, and the addition of Kalinga Lancers meant the competition could be played on a straight home and away basis, a move welcomed by all.
As great a showpiece as the tournament has been and Star sports has invested heavily in their coverage using 22 cameras as opposed to the standard six normally used, to try and give sports fans a more inclusive experience, taking them into the heart of the action, deficiencies in the development of young Indian players has been evident.
German goalkeeper Nikolas Jacobi, playing for the Delhi Waveriders stated that the problem lay in the young players being taught the basics in terms of positional play and structures in attack and defence that many other nations instil in their children at a very young age. Terry Walsh the recently appointed coach of India agreed with these comments, and has said that he will be working on trying to improve the standard of coaching in the development stages so that time does not have to be spent on these issues when the international squad meets.
The Hockey India League, has been a great opportunity for many young Indian players to step up and show what they are capable of, as well as learn from top players and coaches from around the world. Some have however shown that they may still be slightly overawed by the company in which they find themselves.
Olympic Gold Medal winning coach Barry Dancer in charge of the table topping Jaypee Punjab Warriors has said that he would like to see more foreign players made available so that the HIL product can continue to improve. At present each team has ten foreigners in their squad with only five allowed on the pitch at any one time. He has also stated that he would like to see another team introduced.
Were that to happen one would hope that recruitment for that team was looked at carefully. Kalinga Lancers performance was remarkable when one considers that apart from their overseas recruits none of their Indian players had played at international level for two years. All of the current players or those on the verge of international status had been taken by the other franchises. A new franchise would need to have access to some established talent in order to be competitive.
Barry Dancer talked about recruiting from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, but how about also looking to Asia, and picking some South Korean (maybe soon Korean) players or Japanese, and help hockey develop and gain an audience in this region? Then there is the horny issue of allowing Pakistan players to play.
In 2013 Mumbai Magicians recruited a number of Pakistan players but due to issues of unrest back home in Pakistan and tensions at the border it was decided that it was best they did not play. Politically things have stabilised in recent times and it is very sad that talented players from Pakistan, who will help boost the crowds and also offer so much in terms of their ability, are not being seen in such a competition. The game as a whole would benefit so much from their participation.
It is hard to justify why they have not been welcomed back when former Pakistan players are involved in the commentary teams on television, as have their counterparts in the cricket coverage in India. Why should current players suffer?
The Hero Hockey India League has been a great advertisement for the game of Hockey. It has grown from 2013 in so many ways, but still has room to improve. Video referrals are one area that both players and coaches would like to see implemented from the start of the competition, and not just from the semi finals. With such a system working at most international tournaments it is only fair to expect it in a premier competition such as this.
The great thing is rivalries are being established within the league and Hockey is returning to the consciousness of the Indian people. This league is part of the plan to restore India to the top ranks of World Hockey, it will not happen in the short term but the country is moving in the right direction.