A spectacle sport

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on August 14, 2014

Hero-building: The hockey format now allows for on-field celebration time   -  Akhilesh Kumar

Winds of change are blowing through the astroturf. New rules and formats are sure to make hockey more television-spectator-and-player-friendly

An India-Pakistan hockey match was once the highlight of the sport’s calendar. Recently, Terry Walsh, the India hockey team’s coach from Australia said, “To me, it is a lasting memory, watching India play Pakistan.” The intrigue and artistry that marked their hockey endeared both the teams to spectators and players across the world.

But then hockey suffered a global decline in its mass appeal. Even the subcontinent’s fans turned their back on this once exciting game, initially played on grass. In the last four decades or so, hockey has been played on astroturf, which has given rise to a robust style of play — power and speed have become the dominant components of all contemporary hockey games.

There is, however, a whiff of change. Hockey is being revamped. The administrators have realised they face huge competition when it comes to attracting sponsors and spectators. Keeping that in mind the International Hockey Federation (FIH) has introduced a new set of rules with the aim to reach a younger audience. The emphasis is clearly on entertainment and skilful hockey.

The Hockey India League (HIL) gave a glimpse of what can be expected. The carnival-like ambience at the venues found support from hockey lovers, especially youngsters, who came in large numbers. There was hockey, entertainment in the form of live music and prizes to be won at the end of matches.

“This kind of packaging was much-needed because hockey was losing its audience and sponsors. One has to keep pace with the times and the paying public obviously wants quality and value for its money. The fact that entry to the HIL was not free raises hopes that one can expect genuine hockey lovers to throng the venues once again,” says former India captain Zafar Iqbal.

What are the chances of hockey becoming a spectacle? “Bright,” claimed an official from a broadcasting company, which has taken some revolutionary steps in this direction. “The game was so fast that the audience always had problems following it. Too many stoppages and infringements meant the focus was off the mark. But that is changing.”

In India, hockey has faced challenge from cricket, football and tennis, all self-reliant when it comes to conducting events. Cricket has benefitted from television rights while tennis and football do not depend on government aid. Hockey does. “Lack of sponsorship has been a major hurdle in popularising the game. Sponsors demand achievements. But achievements can’t happen without regular participation and exposure for which you need sponsors. It is a vicious cycle,” said former international hockey player Jagbir Singh.

The vicious cycle is now being tackled professionally by the administrators with the help of Star India, the official broadcaster for hockey in India. There is a welcome change in rules since the FIH is actively moving towards a vibrant annual calendar through the European Hockey League and India Hockey League, where the best players participate. From two 35-minute halves the matches are now divided into four 15-minute quarters. The idea, as FIH insists, is to “improve the flow and intensity of the game and increase the fan experience and opportunity for game presentation and analysis.”

To me, the most significant rule change is the implementation of 40-second time-outs following both penalty corner awards and the scoring of a goal. “We call it hero-building. In football and cricket, it is so much about celebration after a goal or a wicket or a century. Hockey needed such celebrations. This 40-second break would allow the cameras to focus on the emotional side of the contest, a player celebrating or sometimes lamenting a mistake,” said a veteran cameraman associated with hockey.

Other than this, the 40-second-time-out will also be awarded when a goal is scored. The idea, as FIH asserts, is to encourage on-field team celebrations. At the venue, it will also allow players an opportunity to engage with supporters in the stands as they cheer on their favourites.

The players are excited at the idea of hockey becoming a TV spectacle. The game is now covered by 18 cameras instead of eight in the past. There is an ultra-slow, a super-slow and a ball-level camera that captures the action from the vision of the players and the umpires revealing various technical intricacies to the TV audience. Hockey is sure to win new fans with the revamped format and more TV airtime. It will soon be a spectacle again, one which we can celebrate and participate in.

Vijay Lokapally is deputy editor, sports, The Hindu

Published on May 09, 2014

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