National championships in any sport are often the pinnacle of performance. The ongoing Hockey Men’s National Championship (A Division) here is anything but.
Consider: The national camp currently has 32 players; the junior campers number 35. That’s 67 of supposedly India’s best players ruled out of the nationals. With little chance of breaking into this elite club — it would take exceptional brilliance for someone to do so — there is little to play for for those here, except bragging rights for the respective state teams or their employers.
It would be in this backdrop that the semifinals of the tournament would be played on Saturday, with all four being institutional sides. In the absence of four-time winner Railways, suspended by Hockey India last year for not acting in an age-fraud case from 2018, Petroleum Sports Promotion Board would take on former heavyweights but now struggling Air India while the other semifinal would see Services take on Punjab & Sind Bank.
With three wins and a draw, PSPB has been in fine form through the league stages. It also boasts of several players who have been part of the national set-up till very recently — both youngsters and seniors — either as players or part of the support staff. As such, the team is not just fitter but also more aware of what is required at any point of the game.
Air India, on the other hand, continues to bank on old hands, including players like V.S. Vinaya and Adrian D’Souza, the only recognisable names in the line-up. It was lucky to make the cut after eking out a 1-1 draw with Gangpur-Odisha in its final Pool D game. Having stopped recruiting players more than a decade ago, struggling to survive with the organisation itself on the verge of disinvestment and continuing with contractual players on annual stipend, that Air India has continued to stay in the game only highlights the decay elsewhere.
The last time the two teams met in a knockout game, in the 2018 semifinals, PSPB — included as an associate member by Hockey India that year only — won easily. A similar result seems likely this time around as well.
Semifinals line-up: SSCB vs PSB (1 p.m.), Air India vs PSPB (3 p.m.).