Bangalore, Sep 22 - Indian hockey begins the long haul from the depths following the last place finish at the 2012 Olympics when the men’s senior National championship commences here Sunday with as many as 36 teams representing units affiliated to Hockey India (HI) in the fray.
It would be the second edition of the championship under the HI banner, but missing is the iconic Rangaswamy Cup that used to be presented to the winners in the past when the Indian Hockey Federation was in charge. In any case, the organisers were clueless about the trophy’s whereabouts.
In such a scenario, Hockey Karnataka, comprising mostly former players, have put together a 10-day event that they hope would rekindle interest in the sport, but then, the onus would be on the players to up their level that would provide the spark for rejuvenation.
The promotional material headlined the “star players” such as Sardara Singh, India’s best and only World-class player, drag-flick specialists Sandeep Singh, a major flop at the Olympics, and Ramachandra Raghunath, besides veterans Ignace Tirkey, Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandkar among others. Barring Sardara, an enterprising midfielder-turned-defender, others played way below expectations.
But hope springs eternal for Indian hockey and the recent debacle has not dimmed the enthusiasm among the organizing officials and that in itself is a big positive under the circumstances.
“The national championship is the biggest tournament on our domestic calendar and we are hoping that the crowds would be back to support the game,” said AB Subbaiah, the former India goalkeeper and currently, secretary of Hockey Karnataka.
With there being hints of a revamp of the National team that has two major international tournaments this winter in the FIH Champions Trophy and its Asian version, the players are not short on incentive.
The performances, especially those of the seniors whose commitment was questioned by National coach Michael Nobbs, would be under close scrutiny while the selectors would be scouting for fresh talent.
Despite the “full house” in terms of number of entries, the championship is no different from the IHF version that was often criticized for too many one-sided matches in the league phase and subsequently underwent format changes before being given up altogether in the first decade of the new millennium.
Yet, the die-hard fans can look forward to a few league matches that are expected to dish out some fireworks and quality hockey.
Top of the list is the Services vs Punjab clash in Group C while Karnataka go up against Delhi (Group B) and Railways meet Uttar Pradesh (Group F).
With just one team to qualify from each of the eight groups for the quarter-finals, the competition is likely to be fierce with sparks flying, something that the tournament director Mohd Muneer from Tamil Nadu said would be closely monitored. “We will do everything we can to maintain discipline,” he assured.
Subbaiah pointed out that the teams would be provided best possible environment to perform and it included quality accommodation that the players of the past craved for but hardly ever given.
“We have not spared any expense to provide best possible facilities for the players and we hope that they reciprocate by playing good hockey,” said Subbaiah.
Group A: Haryana, Maharashtra, Puducherry, Bengal, Hockey Bhopal
Group B: Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Mizoram
Group C: Punjab, Services, J&K, Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh
Group D: Jharkhand, Chandigarh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Sashastra Seema Bal
Group E: Air India, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Nagaland
Group F: Indian Railways, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Tripura
Group G: Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat
Group H: Bihar, Combined Universities, Manipur, Andaman & Nicobar