An incident in the second quarter of the opening match of the Hockey India League (HIL) in New Delhi on January 14 neatly summed up the build-up to the event many considered to be the struggling national sport’s last roll of the dice. The Delhi Waveriders were laying siege to the Punjab Warriors’ ‘D’ at one end, oblivious to the fact that almost the entire stadium at that time was looking in the other direction where two intruders had run on to the pitch, demanding eight Pakistani players in the HIL be sent back in the wake of the killings of two Indian soldiers at the LoC. As photojournalists, assembled in that corner, furiously clicked pictures of the intruders and their banners, hockey, admittedly uninspiring on that given day, slipped into the background on its own stage.
However, since in recent memory, Indian hockey had been in the news for all the wrong reasons—mismanagement, corruption and underperformance at the world stage—the incident merged seamlessly with the sport’s narrative. Which is why, from the vantage point of the National Stadium’s press box, the HIL’s prospects looked decidedly bleak on that cold January evening. It appeared a fairly safe assumption that by the time the controversy would subside, the tournament, too, would’ve slipped out of the public consciousness.
Twenty-seven days and 33 matches later, those assessments—not malicious but premature—had failed spectacularly, as in front of a smitten Ranchi, both the local team and Indian hockey emerged triumphant. In that period, a combination of luck (which had looked rotten in the beginning), foresight and professionalism (factors traditionally absent when it comes to hockey’s administration) turned things around swiftly.
The tale of the HIL’s bad luck begins well before the tournament. After the national team finished last in the Olympics, they had a hard time selling the concept to prospective franchisees. Till mid-November, only four of their six teams were sold— three regional (Jalandhar, Ranchi and Lucknow) and one metro (Delhi)—before Mumbai was bought late. The Bangalore/Chennai slot remained unsold. Once the tournament started, the very limited playing field saw four out of five teams qualifying for the semi-finals after three-and-a-half-weeks of gruelling league stage, a concept that seemed ridiculous on paper. However, it made the rather hurriedly-staged tournament logistically less demanding. Moreover, even though fans from the south might have felt left out, fewer teams in the first edition helped in easier brand-building among the neutrals.