New Delhi: With a young team led by the enigmatic Sardar Singh showing glimpses of India's past prowess, there are now hopes an upcoming professional league likened to the money-rich Indian Premier League will help resurrect the sport's former glory.
Indians were long considered the kings of field hockey — winning eight Olympic gold medals — but that dominance has dwindled since the introduction of synthetic turf pitches in the 1970s.
India's fourth-place finish at last year's Champions Trophy with a young squad led by versatile player Sardar Singh offered hope for the future, just in time for the proposed league to find some new backers.
The Hockey India League, which has the sanction of world body FIH and is organized by Hockey India, will be held at a range of venues from Jan. 14-Feb. 10 featuring five city-based franchise teams — Delhi Waveriders, Jaypee Punjab Warriors, Uttar Pradesh Wizards, Mumbai Magicians and Ranchi Rhinos.
Though announced with much fanfare, a sixth franchise - Bangalore - remained unsold and there had also been doubts over the Delhi franchise after its co-owner Ponty Chadha died in a shootout over an alleged property dispute with his brother, but the sponsor remained on board.
Former Australia coach and Olympian Ric Charlesworth, who will coach the Mumbai side, is bullish about the league, which he believes will benefit not just India but the global field hockey fraternity.
"I believe the league has the possibility of building interest in the game in India and elsewhere," he told The Associated Press in an e-mail. "Young players increasingly see a future as a hockey player. Our Australian players can now hope to play in Europe and in India, and young Indians see their hockey world expanding."
In an auction last month that was held along similar lines to the IPL, star player Sardar was the costliest player, selling for $78,000 to Delhi. Ace drag-flicker V.R. Raghunath was bought by Uttar Pradesh for $76,000, Australian star Jamie Dwyer went to Punjab for $60,000, German player Mortiz Fuertse was taken by Ranchi for $75,500 and Dutch great Nooijer sold to Uttar Pradesh Wizards for $66,000.
Charlesworth, who has been associated with Indian teams in the past, thinks the league will offer budding Indian players a chance to compete with the best.
"The strength of this league for Indian players will be the fact that some of the world's best international players will rub shoulders with young Indian players and thereby grow and develop in a highly competitive international environment . that will be the best place to advance their skills and international competitiveness," he said.
Charlesworth said he expects the league will evolve over the years even as a broader group of players is exposed to competition at an international level.
"Players learn from each other, they learn from the coaching environment and from the playing experience," he explained. "I am confident that the whole perspective of those involved will be expanded and fertilized by this league. There will not be a day goes by that a new concept will be discussed, challenged or tried," he said.
India's national coach Michael Nobbs has previously expressed the hope that said the league will help identify future stars.
"My long-term goal is a podium in Rio (2016 Olympics) and that's what we are aiming for," Nobbs told reporters after the Champions Trophy. "But the short-term goal is the Hockey India League where I want to see how Indian players play against some of the best in international hockey."
Despite high hopes and an injection of cash, the Indian hockey administration faces a struggle to build support and a completive team, especially just a year after the rebel IHF organizing its own World Series Hockey league which got a lukewarm response from fans and the media.
Former star Dhanraj Pillay and ex-India captain Rajpal Singh were the prominent Indian players in that league, while the foreigners included Rehan Butt of Pakistan, Brent Livermore of Australia, Lucas Vila of Argentina and Rodrigo Garza of Spain.
The challenge for the upcoming FIH sanctioned event will be to not just to sustain it but also ensure India is able to increase its pool of players and improve overall standards.