A different ball game

Last Updated 22 March 2014, 16:04 IST

If there is one sport that has embraced changes with open arms, it certainly has to be hockey. From the controversial switch to artificial turf in the 1970s, to the path-breaking introduction of rolling substitution in 1992 to the abolishment of the off-side rule four years later, the International Hockey Federation has constantly tinkered with the rules that have been met with as much appreciation as criticism.

Not an extremely popular sport globally as compared to football or tennis, the main reason behind the world body’s frequent change is to maintain the excitement levels amongst the fans in the modern age of heightened competition. The latest installment of changes announced on Thursday is another attempt to make the game faster, attractive and very importantly -- increase revenue flow.

In a surprise development that very few saw coming, the FIH decided to cut the game from two 35-minute halves to four 15-minute quarters, taking cue from the successful Euro Hockey League and the Hockey India League. That wholesale change apart, there will be 40-second time-outs following penalty-corner awards and, very bizarrely, same time awarded for goal celebrations.

Also, at the end of the opening and third quarters, there will be a two-minute break, while a 10-minute break that has been observed at half-time will continue as well. These time-changes have been brought about to help keep the players fresh and provide more chances for teams to rethink their strategies with their respective coaches as witnessed in the NBA. Moreover, the extra two extra intervals allow broadcasters more leverage which could be used for commercials or provide extra analysis.

The decisions, expectedly, has triggered varied reactions from the hockey fraternity worldwide and with the changes set to take effect from September 1, the players, coaches and officials will have to adapt quickly.

Complementing the FIH for having taken another bold step which could drive the game forward, former Indian captain Jude Felix, however, felt the world body soon needs to find a full stop as the fans could be left confused with the constant juggling.

“For any game to survive, it needs revenue and this current strategy has the potential to deliver the intended results,” Felix told Deccan Herald. “The two extra two-minute intervals means four minutes of free time which could be used for advertisements or analysis.“Currently, hockey needs plenty of money and this is a good way of doing it and the fans will also realise that. It worked well during the Hockey India League,” Felix said.

Viren Rasquinha, another former India captain who was a commentator at the HIL, echoed the same thoughts. “From the TV point of view, it’s a big thumbs-up,” said Rasquinha. “I was in the studio and it helped us offer more analysis and time to show replays. Generally the game is played at such quick pace that there is no time to show replays. But, these time-outs help us in that way. The fans got to see a lot more than what they did earlier.”

Obviously, television has had a big say in the decisions, but for the fans in the stands, the changes may not be that palatable, with constant breaks upsetting the flow of the game. FIH has claimed that splitting the game into four quarters will make the game more speedy but some experts aren’t convinced by the argument, even though it might allow the players to go full blast in a 15-minute quarter.

“I don’t buy their argument that it has been done to increase speed,” said Felix. “The game now is faster than it ever was. The players are far fitter than they were in old times. You blink and you might miss something special. Maybe it gives them more recovery time but the time-outs could slow down the game,” he said.

An area the new rules could have a profound impact upon is strategy, what with the weaker teams getting additional lifelines to disrupt the rhythm of their rivals.
 “These rules could help a team that is going through a bad phase,” agreed Rasquinha. “Earlier when one team was on the attack, the other had to take it even if they had no clue what was hitting them. The time-outs and quarters could help them re-strategise. It can help stop their slide. I’ve seen momentum change almost every quarter. While it’s good in a way, it’s bad for a team that has its foot on the pedal as they would lose their momentum.”

Both Rasquinha and Felix stressed that fans have to be kept in the loop when effecting changes. With the frequency with which rules have been altered, hockey is fast becoming an entirely different ball game, and that could be tough on the man in the stands.

“For the players, since they train almost everyday, adapting won’t be much of a problem,” said Rasquinha. “But the fans could be left wondering what is happening. We have to end up educating them regularly which they may or may not like.”

Felix pointed out that frequent changes can leave the fans confused. “Changes are fine, but constant changes cause confusion amongst fans,” he said. “For example, they introduced the stupid own-goal rule a couple of years ago. That was the most ridiculous thing. Imagine about 15 players inside the circle and one umpire adjudicating it. Fans need certain stability, otherwise the whole purpose could be lost. It has to stop somewhere,” he warned.

While changes affect almost everyone associated with the sport, the people who need to understand them completely before they enter the pitch are the umpires. Despite the heavy toll it puts on their mind and body, their work is rarely appreciated but umpires have to constantly stay up-to-date. It is a challenge that they have to face head on, felt R V Raghuprasad, international umpire.

“I believe FIH is doing this for the betterment of the game,” reasoned Raghuprasad, who has blown the whistle at the World Cup and the Olympic Games. “It’s a big challenge for us. For example, the ball was allowed to be played above the shoulder at the HIL. Whereas at the international level, it is deemed illegal and dangerous. We need to be able to make that switch. That’s our challenge and I believe we need to live up to it.”

(Published 22 March 2014, 16:04 IST)

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