NEW SCORING RULES encouraging field goals and an equal distribution of Indian talent make the fourth Coal India Hockey India League (HIL) an exciting contest, beginning with a showdown between Kalinga Lancers and Uttar Pradesh Wizards at the Kalinga Stadium here on Monday.
Drag-flickers have been prominent in international matches in this century and the HIL organisers have decided to award two points for each field goal this year. Also, to curb rough tackling, two goals will be counted for every goal scored off a penalty stroke that results from a penalty corner when a goal being scored is prevented by a deliberate foul.
And the teams have also picked their squads during the September 2015 auction as per the requirements under these changes, preferring not only attackers but also technically sound defenders.
However, Ranchi Rays captain Ashley Jackson, himself a drag-flicker, feels the set-piece specialists' roles can not be underestimated.
"The forwards will enjoy playing with the new rules in play but in that process they may end up earning more number of penalty corners and and the drag-flickers can't afford to miss out on them as always," Jackson, who captained his side to glory last year, said.
"So, I am excited and eager to see how the rules impact the games. The rules will certainly impact the results of the matches and the scorelines," the Englishman, who has played for Ranchi based teams from the first edition, added.
But Indian drag-flicker V.R. Raghunath, who will lead Uttar Pradesh Wizards, said that penalty corner exponents will feel less pressure this time around. Raghunath's Wizards have not reached final in the past three editions and to do that they have made some crucial buys in the form of German Tobias Hauke, Australian Jamie Dwyer, Akashdeep Singh and Argentine duo of Augustin Mazzilli and Gonzalo Peillat.
Eddie Ockenden, P.R. Sreejesh, Ramandeep Singh, Wouter Jolie, Chinglensana are some of the other key players of the Lucknow-based side.
Moreover, with the contracts of players ending in 2015 and some of them being retained, the sides who were suffering because of less talented Indian players, Dabang Mumbai and Kalinga Lancers have addressed the issue this time. They were not part of inaugural edition, thereby unable to pick talents from a wider net.
Nikkin Thimmiah, Affan Yousuf, Gurmail Singh are crucial additions to Mumbai, while S.K. Uthappa, Dharamvir Singh, Malak Singh, Amit Rohidas will boost Kalinga's chances. Apart from this, some players in Lancers have grown in stature -- Devindar Singh Walmiki and Lalit Upadhyay -- are now part of the national team.
Local defender Dipsan Tirkey, who was 15 when he joined the side in 2014, now serves as the vice-captain of India's Under-21 side. Dipsan is another supreme talent from the tribal belt of Odisha.
To add to the excitement, several key players have switched alliances and it will be interesting to see how they fare this time.
Three players who will be in focus are Sardar Singh (from Delhi Waveriders to Jaypee Punjab Warriors), Australia's five-time world player of the year Jamie Dwyer (from Warriors to Wizards) and Sandeep Singh (from Warriors to defending champions Ranchi Rays.
Apart from the trio, Australian Glenn Turner (from Mumbai to Kalinga), Danish Mujtaba (from Waveriders to Mumbai) and Nikkin from Wizards to Mumbai) are also notable players who have switched sides.
Wizards, who finished as runners-up in the past two editions, will miss the services of 2014 world goalkeeper of the year Jaap Stockmaan. The Dutchman decided skip the six-franchise tournament to focus on the national programme in the Olympics year.
However, the Barry Dancer-coached side has maintained the Australian flavour despite the absence of Dwyer and promises to continue its track record of the best free-flowing hockey side.
Matt Gohdes, Tristian Clemons and Kiel Brown will join his compatriots Mark Knowles, Simon Orchard, Chris Ciriello, Jake Whetton in Chandigarh. They look formidable by the new signings in Sardar, Jasjit Singh Kular, Gurwinder Singh Chandi and Englishman Mark Gleghorne. Indian livewire S.V. Sunil, who was retained, will add to the firepower.
Their biggest opponent will be Harendra Singh-coached Rays, who will once again depend on Jackson, forward Barry Middleton, Fergus Kavanagh, Manpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra and Kothajit Singh, Tyler Lovell and Trent Mitton.
Among Mumbai's list of players, Florian Fuchs, Nikkin David Harte, Harmanpreet Singh, Jeremy Hayward and Matthew Swann hold key, while for 2014 champions Delhi Waveriders, Simon Child, Rupinderpal Singh, Yuvraj Walmiki, Talwinder Singh, Harjot Singh and Steven Edwards are important.
Lancers, this time coached by former Australian star Mark Hager, require German captain Moritz Furste, Adam Dixon, Aran Zaleswski, Turner, Upadhyay and Andrew Charter to fire.