This Leap Day of February 29 is going to be momentous as two significant events are set to unfold. At the top is the World Series Hockey league kicking off at Chandigarh tonight, hours after the cricket selection committee picks the Indian team for the Asia Cup at Dhaka next month that could well see some far-reaching changes.
While the WSH received a big boost in terms of profile after Indian men's team expectedly qualified for the Olympics over the weekend and is definitely a milestone in hockey, it remains to be seen whether our cricket selectors will take a bold step to refurbish a team that is creaking with not just age, but also internal quibbling.
As for the WSH, it is indeed a welcome development though it is an extension of the once popular Premier Hockey League (a forerunner to the Indian Premier League cricket) that the Indian Hockey Federation allowed to suffer a premature death. And ironically, it is the same IHF under whose aegis the WSH is being held.
With a multi-national cast, the WSH has the potential of developing into a truly global event. Unlike the IPL, the WSH is being projected as a World event, not just in name, but also the line-up. Though the teams lend a domestic hue to the league, there is scope for the event to cross international borders and develop into a major league.
However, of immediate concern is the sulking International Hockey Federation (FIH) whose president Negre, to me, is more a collection agent like the ones that the banks hire, and Hockey India who have usurped power from the IHF. The two sets of administrators have been constantly threatening action against players participating in the WSH that has no official blessings. The entire Indian team is staying out of the WSH, putting the Olympian glory ahead of monetary gains.
Negre has made umpteen trips to Delhi in a bid to collect the dues from the 2010 World Cup held in the national capital. To this end, he even shifted the elite 2011 Champions Trophy from Delhi to New Zealand in a blatant misuse of authority while citing the bickering between the IHF and Hockey India as the reason. The two factions are nowhere close to patching up, but Negre, having collected the dues, chose to look the other way and allowed the Olympic qualifier to be held in Delhi as scheduled!
It is a behaviour that is totally unbecoming of a man in such a high position and it bears repetition that it was the FIH that precipitated matters in Indian hockey by granting recognition to Hockey India (prompted by Kalmadi) that was formed arbitrarily. If anything, it was a disgraceful act on part of the FIH that is now presiding over the mess of court cases and warring associations at the State level.
All that is history and it is to be hoped that the WSH is a success as it should unless Nimbus and IHF put the cart before the horse by trying to fiddle with the basics of the sport. Entertainment is fine, but let us hope that WSH will not go the IPL way by putting too much emphasis on glitz and glamour.
Meanwhile, the attention will be on Mumbai where the selectors meet to pick the team for Asia Cup. I suspect there would be a few new and fresh faces in the squad while the likes of Sachin and Sehwag could be ''rested''. There has been far too much focus on individuals in the wake of India's dismal showing in Australia, though Kohli’s sensational century provided some cheer. Should India make it to the final against Australia (I will not be surprised), then I will back Dhoni's men to pull it off.
To say the least, the reaction to Indian team’s performance Down Under has been rather extreme in our country. The breast-beating and ''debates'' are all too familiar, but experience has shown that cricket has a way of hitting back at the so-called experts and critics. For instance, just as we were berating the Indian team, it pulls off a great win and the zeroes become heroes!
Regardless of the composition of the Asia Cup team, it does not really matter, for we all know that the proof of an Indian player's ability and class is performance outside the sub-continent. For me, the Asia Cup is a non-event in the larger context of the sport, for there is nothing to be gained or lost. Hence, I wouldn't read too much in the team that will travel to Dhaka in March.
At best, success in Asia Cup will somewhat compensate for the miserable season thus far as we will be witnessing the transformation of scalded cats into tigers in the coming weeks.