The Indian Hockey Federation in all its collective wisdom, decided to start the Premier Hockey League in an attempt to revive the lost spectator interest in India’s national sport, and as a showcase for the many talented and unsung players of the sport. Many, especially the media, hailed it as the only good decision that Gill and his bunch of cronies had taken in a long while. TV channels were all gung-ho, what with all the television friendly rule changes and all. And a huge publicity blitz resulted. Hell, I even spotted people wearing Chennai Veerans, Bangalore Hi-Fliers (this was before ING Vysya Lionised them) T-shirts. For a moment, everyone thought hockey was back at the forefront of the Indian sportslover’s imagination. And then the games started…
PHL 2005 and 2006 were both damp squibs at best. In 2005, the teams still had no clue how to strategically utilise the time-outs, and the basic realisation that shorter periods of play meant that you had to go out on an all-out attack still had not dawned on them. They were still playing the then internationally standardised tactic of taking the ball into the opponents area, and then aiming at their feet to earn penalty corners. This hardly made for free flowing hockey, and spectators soon got bored. 2006, was more of the same with even more penalty corners, and drag flickers like Len Aiyappa ruling the roost.
PHL 2007 was preceded by an even bigger media blitz than ever before, with celebrity endorsements, movie tie-ins (Bhaganbhag), catchy taglines (Garv Nahin Tho Kuch Nahin) etc. But more importantly, the format of the league was changed with the two tier system being dropped in favour of a more easy-to-manage-and-follow single tier system. Also out went the perennially underperforming teams viz. Imphal Rangers, Delhi Dazzlers and the Lucknow Nawabs. And you had the entire Pakistan national hockey team on action, with as many as 12 of their players spread amongst the 7 teams. Given this, and IHF’s bullheadedness in not allowing some of India’s finest (though one may argue that Dhanraj Pillay is over-the-hill, the fact that every team wanted him in their folds speaks a different story) to plat the tournament, it hardly comes as a surprise that this year’s edition has been dominated by the Pakistanis.
Rehan Butt, arguably Asia’s lone hockey superstar these days, has been in sparkling form for the Bangalore Lions. Len Aiyappa’s back injury has meant that the PHL’s top team and defending champions cannot rely solely on their penalty corner conversions to ensure victories and has seen them adopt a more attacking style of play, attempting to score as many goals as possible without relying on set plays. And Rehan Butt, with his lightning quick speed and ability to score from insane angles has led from the front. The other Pakistanis aren’t doing too bad either. For example Shakeel Abbasi has been the lone warrior in an otherwise dismal performance by the Hyderbad Sultans. Even the Indians are getting the hang of the Pakistani style of play, with Gagan Ajit Singh giving the Bangalore Lions a taste of their own medicine when his Sher-e-Jalandhar team thulped them 7-1.
PHL, might not have been the platform for Indian hockey players that it was meant to be, but on the other hand, we are seeing some good enjoyable attacking hockey once again, and that can only be good news. Bring in more Pakistani players, I say. Or Pakistani teams even; Karachi Blazers and Rawalpindi Bombers, anyone?