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How Pakistan clicked at India’s first pro league

How Pakistan clicked at India’s first pro league

KOLKATA: The Indian sports management professional, who gave India its first inter-city pro league featuring a raft of foreign recruits, says players from across the western border were “crowd-pullers” at the event.

“Spectators cheered every move of Pakistani players, [made] either individually or in combination with their Indian teammates,” says Sabyasachi Dasgupta of the now-defunct Premier Hockey League (PHL), which he conceptualised and breathed life into.

“They were the crowd-pullers, fans of the team having Pakistani players hero-worshipped them,” Dasgupta told this correspondent. “I could not have visualised the league without the presence of these players.”

PHL was India’s first successful professional league across sporting disciplines when launched in 2005 – three years before cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) took off and became a phenomenon.

Not many remember this.

Perhaps even fewer remember that Pakistan accounted for the maximum number of overseas players in PHL – every year for the four-season tournament – totalling 24 in the end, when PHL stopped because of administrative problems within the Indian federation.

By the time the PHL, comprising seven inter-city teams, folded up in 2008 – ironically in the same year that saw IPL’s lift-off – it had proved beyond doubt that home-grown sports managers were capable of running pro leagues.

Till then, in India as in the rest of the subcontinent, national sporting events were synonymous with the respective federations.

“PHL was the first professional, inter-city league not only in India but South Asia as well,” boasts Dasgupta, founder-managing director of the Kolkata-based Leisure Sports Management, one of the first such firms in the country.

“Show me another league, in any sport anywhere in South Asia … either here in India or in Pakistan, or elsewhere in the subcontinent … which had city-based teams with foreign players before 2005.

“I will give you the answer – there wasn’t any.”

PHL drew players from almost all major field hockey nations including Australia, the Netherlands, Spain and Argentina – apart from the two South Asian rivals.

Dasgupta recalls the scepticism he had faced when he proposed the league. “People told me it wouldn’t work in India, that there would be no takers for hockey at a time when cricket was so entrenched.”

That made him realise he needed to spice up his ideas if he wanted to make hockey a marketable sport. It was then that Dasgupta had a brainwave: why not induct foreign players, including Pakistanis?

In his view, “world hockey had no value” without these two neighbours. “An Indo-Pakistan ‘battle’ was considered not only royal but also the most crowd-pulling in any part of the world,” he says.

So to give his “vision a reality”, Dasgupta says he went to Lahore to meet the sport’s Pakistani administrators. “They were overwhelmed with the idea of the League and participation of their players,” he says.

Many of the Pakistani players represented army teams, and the federation officials “actively” worked to get them to play in the league. “Quite a few officials, like Naveed Khan who is now with football, remain close friends.”

Dasgupta also introduced several innovations to make the league a viewing spectacle. For instance, each game was split into four quarters of 17.5 minutes each instead of the standard two halves. This format also allowed more advertising time on television.

Similarly, third umpires and time-outs were introduced to liven up the game. The winner within the stipulated time was awarded three points, while the team winning in the extra time shared the points 2:1.

There were others too, and the International Hockey Federation has since then adopted a few.

PHL also introduced a few corporate practices in Indian sports. First, a separate company was floated for the event, with broadcaster ESPN and the Indian Hockey Federation as stakeholders.

Then, TV promos were launched with Bollywood stars and playback singers roped in. In the second edition, leading music label T-Series cut an album of the PHL signature song; back in 2006, this was a novelty.

As the buzz around the new league gathered steam outside, and teams found sponsors including remittance leader Western Union, the zing on the field was added by the Pakistani players, most of who Dasgupta says were known in India.

“The relationship shared between players from both sides of the border was extremely cordial and therefore I knew that playing alongside each other would be thoroughly relished,” he says.

Dasgupta recalls several Pakistani players, and specifically mentions Sohail Abbas, Rehan Bhatt and Salman Akbar as being “known well in India”.

“Sohail was a hit among female fans in Chandigarh,” he says.

“It was so heartening to see how fans of a team at the stadium got involved and cheered every move of the Pakistani players. It was a matter of pride for the supporters if they played well.”

The Pakistanis were paid between $2,500 and $3000 (between PKR 260,000 and PKR 310,000 in today’s rates), but as Dasgupta says, “back then, it was a lot of money for hockey players”.

There was no opposition from any political party, though after ESPN agreed to underwrite the costs for 10 years, and the Indian and world hockey bodies gave their nod, Dasgupta says he was certain the league would have taken off with or without the Pakistani players.

“But with them there, PHL was given a true global flavour.”

The writer is a Kolkata-based journalist covering the corporate sector and the business of sports.

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