After a decade of gloom, Indian hockey is all set to begin a new innings with the IPL-style version of the game, the Hockey India League, which begins here on Monday when hosts Delhi Waveriders take on Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the inaugural match of the event.
The five-team franchise based HIL is being seen as a remedy for Indian hockey, which is slowly trying to regain its footing after a steady decline during the past decade.
The HIL will renew hope of a new dawn in Indian hockey after missing the 2008 Beijing Olympics and finishing rock bottom in London last year.
With a young Indian 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 IPL 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.
The Hockey India League, which has the sanction of world body FIH and is organised, will be held across five venues from January 14-February 10 featuring five city-based franchise teams -- Delhi Waveriders, Jaypee Punjab Warriors, Uttar Pradesh Wizards, Mumbai Magicians and Ranchi Rhinos.
Unlike rival World Series Hockey, 120 hockey players -including the best from India and around the world - will be showcasing their stick-work on the turf in the HIL. The league will feature some of the big names of international hockey in Australian captain Jamie Dwyer, Dutchman Tuen de Nooijer, Germany captain Mo ritz Fuerste among others.
Through the HIL, the hockey players got the much-needed financial impetus.
In an auction last month that was held along similar lines to the IPL, India captain Sardar was the costliest player, grabbed by Delhi for USD 78,000. India vice-captain and ace drag-flicker V R Raghunath was bought by Uttar Pradesh for USD 76,000, Australian star Dwyer went to Punjab for USD 60,000, Fuertse was taken by Ranchi for USD 75,500 and Nooijer sold to Uttar Pradesh Wizards for USD 66,000.
Inspite of the craze among players and hockey fans for HIL, the challenge for the organisers will be not to just sustain it but also ensure India is able to increase its pool of players and improve overall standards.
The tournament will feature 34 matches spread over 28 days. The league will begin at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium here tomorrow with the opening match between Delhi Waveriders and Jaypee Punjab Warriors.
On paper, both Delhi and Punjab look formidable outfits. Both the teams possess a strong forwardline.
While Dwyer, S V Sunil, Shivendra Singh form a strong forwardline for Punjab, Delhi too possess a formidable attack with the likes of Gurvinder Singh Chandi, Yuvraj Walmiki, Danish Mujtaba, New Zealand's Simon Child and Pakistani Muhammad Rizwan Sr in their ranks.
Delhi coach A K Bansal even went on to say that riding on his strong forwardline his team is looking to start their HIL campaign on a winning note.
"As of now we don't have any strategy because you need to play at least a match or two to plan a strategy. But every team will be cautious in their first match," he told reporters at the pre-match press conference.
"Forwards are out biggest strength. We will try to play attacking hockey and score goals early."
Delhi captain Sardar also agreed with his coach.
"Until we play two matches we can't talk about strategy."
Jamie Dwyer said Punjab is prepared for the duel but they will be extra cautious about inspirational rival skipper Sardar in tomorrow's match.
"We have a good team, but every team will be tough in this tournament. So, we just need to concentrate on our game," he said.
"Hopefully, Sardar doesn't get the ball too much. He is a world-class player so we will try to stop him from getting the ball as much as possible."