Hockey India will go the Indian cricket board's way and if its affiliates fall in line the next national championship will be played in two tiers, like the Ranji Trophy's Elite and Plate Divisions, with promotion and relegation of teams every year.
Hockey India (HI) general secretary Narinder Batra says the idea is to make the championship more competitive and not a routine annual affair of teams coming together. If he has his way the next national will divided into two groups on the basis of the performance here.
"Since the national championship is being played after such a long time we had no way of assessing the strengths of the teams to seed them. After this tournament we will seed the teams for the next championships. We want to divide the teams into two tiers. The top two teams from the Plate Division will be promoted to the Elite Group while the two bottom-placed teams from the top tier will be relegated to the Plate," Batra said.
"The new format will ensure good competition and also the quality of Indian hockey."
No wonder the ongoing championship is being conducted after five years, partly because of internal bickering in the apex body of the game. Also, in recent years there were no takers for the national.
The result is there are 32 teams here, including four institutional sides, and they are made to go through the competition at a frenetic pace at the height of the summer heat in 10 days. The difference in class between the top teams and the rest is all too apparent with scorelines zooming into double figures in most matches at the league stage.
The neglect of domestic hockey has a cascading effect. In the absence of a national calendar, the game is in a shambles. India could not cobble up a junior team to play in the men's Junior Asia Cup because there was no of way of knowing the form or the ages of players. The junior national is scheduled after the senior national.
It is tough for juniors to get noticed by the national selectors to be in the list of probables, leave alone making the India team. The poor performance of the seniors in the Azlan Shah Cup rattled the squabbling hockey administrators and they are now trying to put the game back on the rails.
"The national is very important, it is just the start. We have set the ball rolling. We will also have the junior championship in July-August and subsequently we will have the sub-junior national," said Batra.
With the eight-time Olympic champions all set to host a number of internationals events, including the Champions Trophy and the Olympic qualifiers, in the coming eight months, the selectors have realised they must look out for fresh legs. The Champions Trophy is in December and the Olympic qualifier in February, both in Delhi. The winner of the Champions Trophy will book a berth for the London Games.
National selectors are camping here keenly watching the potential of the players to make sure the squad they pick is strong enough to book the London ticket. Three years ago they failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, like they did four years ago for the Beijing Games.
Former international Jagbir Singh, a member of HI's development and coaching committee, said the national should inspire the youngsters.
"The domestic tournaments, particularly the national, will act like the launching pad for young players to play their way into the India side. It at least sends a message to the youngsters that something is happening. It prepares them to play in the top league of international teams. It also gives them a platform to showcase their talent at the national level. And it stands them a good chance to qualify for the national team," he said.
Olympian Ashok Kumar, son of legendary Dhyan Chand, said the proposed two-tier format will make the tournament competitive.
"We have to make sure that the competition is intense. Also it is difficult to organise a championship for 32 teams. We have to be flexible and see what is best for our future. The tournament should take place in Sep-Oct or Jan-Feb," said Kumar, coach of the Madhya Pradesh Academy that is participating in the nationals.
Kumar, however, is not impressed with the level of competition in the tournament.
"Whatever I have seen here, I have not found many new faces oozing talent. It is because most of the teams have come with players who have been around for long. I am a bit disappointed. Coaches should have given young players a chance rather than going in for the tried and tested. Maybe since the national is happening after a long time, they do not want to take a risk.
"The coaches need to show confidence in young players and give them opportunities. There is little to see in the players who are there for long; they are all on the downslide," said Kumar.