FIH Hockey Pro League: Promise and Peril for India
JITENDRA NATH MISRA
The Netherlands (WR: 3) and India (WR: 5) play back- to- back Hockey Pro League games at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium on January 18 and 19. These are not knockout games, but consequential regardless.
But first, what is the Pro League?
When the Champions Trophy and World League went into the sunset, the Pro League was introduced by the FIH in 2019, as one of its three elite tournaments. In 2019, each participating country played one home and one away game.
In a new format, to reduce travel time and accommodation costs, teams will play two back- to- back games at home in 2020, followed by two back- to- back games away in 2021. The Grand Final of 2019 has been dispensed with, and the table toppers at the end of the season will be the winners.
Rewind into the origins of the modern game in Britain, where hockey is still storied. Great Britain Hockey calls this a league where “action-packed, international rivalries are at their fiercest and 2020 promises to be an exciting forerunner to the Tokyo Olympics. In short, it is hockey at its best.” The league’s quality and elite status were in full display in 2019, with unexpected results during league play, in a phase of novelty and experimentation. Yet, in the end, the three top- ranked teams- Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands- were the ones that medalled.
The Pro League, thus, has the credentials. A Great Britain Hockey media release says in 2019 spectators gave the British teams “fantastic support, including the biggest crowd this country has seen since the London 2012 Olympics when nearly 12,000 people descended on Harlequins’ Twickenham Stoop.”
In cities like Antwerp, Atlanta, Manchester, Ipoh, Vancouver, Dhaka, Ranchi, Gwalior, Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar, where I have watched elite and club- level hockey, spectators show up, regardless of who is playing. In Delhi, where I have attended many elite tournaments, spectators turn up in numbers only when India play.
By ensuring every game is a home game, the Pro League solves the spectating riddle. So, Bhubaneswar, which supports hockey with passion, will likely have a full stadium. “We are looking forward to our debut at the FIH Hockey Pro League which will be a great opportunity to play against top ranked teams from around the world. Home matches will be taking place in Bhubaneswar and we look forward to the fantastic support from the spectators at Kalinga Stadium,” Elena Norman, chief executive officer of Hockey India, tells me.
What might happen in the contest between India and the Netherlands?
On the strength of the last 10 games (from 2013), the teams are evenly matched. The Netherlands have won 5, India have won 4, and 1 game has been drawn. Most games between these two teams are decided by narrow margins. While the Dutch pulled ahead from the 1970s’, the contest since 2014, when India defeated the Netherlands in the Champions Trophy at Bhubaneswar, has been more equal.
Statistically, India has momentum. The FIH even calls India a “powerhouse of international hockey.” But this does not make a convincing case for an Indian victory in the Pro League. Tactically, the Netherlands is better, regularly outwitting India in major tournaments, including the 2018 World Cup. In that game, India forgot to read how, to keep possession, the Dutch slowed the game. 2- 1 up, the elusive Dutch played for time, and India could not find an answer.
In Max Caldas, the Netherlands has a shrewd coach with proven credentials. India has not played the top teams since the 2018 World Cup. The three finals it played in 2019 featured 16th- ranked Korea, (in the Azlan Shah Cup), 14th- ranked South Africa (in the FIH Series Finals) and 22nd- ranked Russia (in the Olympics Qualifiers). So, it is difficult to assess where this Indian team, or coach Graham Reid, stand.
The Netherlands continues to medal in world- class tournaments. In 2019 it won bronze medals in tournaments featuring the world’s best teams, the Pro League and the European Championships. But India has the stomach for a fight. No longer does India get blown away by Australia’s hybrid hockey. Recall the competitive Champions Trophy finals India played against Australia in 2016 and 2018, taking both games into a shootout.
Apart from two silver medals in the Champions Trophy, since 2014 India also has two bronze medals in the World League. This is the result of a clear and consistent strategy. As a growing financial powerhouse, in the last decade India has earned hosting rights for major tournaments, with a chance to play higher- ranked teams on a regular basis. With improved performance, India’s ranking has steadily risen from 9 in 2015 to 5 in 2020. Hockey India and a supportive official environment, notably the government of Odisha, deserve credit for this.
Caldas hints at India’s home advantage in Bhubaneswar: “Playing against India at their home ground is challenging no doubt … I expect India to be as competitive as always and playing in Odisha, they will be very good.” It is also true that, in the past, spectator support has tempted Indian players to perform rather than play, dazzling in predictable runs up front, rather than playing to a plan. So, we don’t know how this will work.
Besides, the upcoming games need to be seen in perspective. 2019 was neither an Olympics nor a World Cup year, allowing teams to experiment in the Pro League. With the Olympics coming, the 2020 season promises a more conservative approach, where victory will become the end, shoving process down the priority. To unbalance opponents, teams will seek early bragging rights ahead of the Olympics.
Thus, the two coaches speak similar voices. Caldas: "The players and combinations we wanted to test were experimented during the previous edition of Pro League. This edition we will have our most competitive team as this will be a stepping stone ahead of Tokyo."
Reid professes a similar approach: "It will be important to start strong and sharp in the Pro League with our first three encounters against the top three teams in the world. We will be focussing on getting our structures right and honing our set plays as preparation for our Olympic campaign.”
Don’t take the coaches at their word, though. There may be something they are not revealing. The best coaches battle away from the arc lights, imposing their authority on opponents. Figures create momentum, but a cerebral approach is better.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador and is the vice president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.