A new chapter in Indian sport will unfold on Thursday when the much-awaited inaugural edition of the Premier Hockey League kicks-off at the floodlit Gachibowli stadium in Hyderabad.
Among the many firsts that the event will bring to Indian hockey, the most important would be the touch of professionalism, with 13 foreign players showcasing their skills in the Rs. 71 lakh prize-money extravaganza.
The two-tier league, to be played over a month, has been devised in American baseball league style, tailor-made for television and featuring teams with macho names.
The matches will be played in a double-leg round-robin format, with five teams, featuring star players, in the Premier Division vying for the winner's purse of Rs. 30 lakh and as many teams in the First Division, the winner of which will bag Rs 400,000.
The sudden exit of Gerard Rach as national coach combined with the recent caustic remarks of Indian Hockey Federation chief KPS Gill on current and former players might have marred the festive air to some extent but the players are nevertheless enthusiastic about the event.
The spotlight will be on Pakistan's penalty-corner specialist Sohail Abbas, who will play for Hyderabad Sultans, led by India skipper Dilip Tirkey, in the Premier Division.
The hosts take on Sher-e-Jalandhar, captained by star Indian forward Gagan Ajit Singh, in the inaugural tie.
Bangalore Hi-Fliers, led by Arjun Halappa, Maratha Warriors (Viren Rasquinha) and Chennai Veerans (Ignace Tirkey) are the other teams in the fray.
Gagan, who opted to be silent on the Gill's remarks that he needs to go back to the basics, said that his team will start as favourites as it has a strong defence and attack.
Maratha Warriors too have a strong defence and equally aggressive players in Dhanraj Pillay and Viren Rasquinha with talented India custodian Adrian D'Souza guarding the post.
Chennai Veerans have a good mix of experience and youth, with Ignace Tirkey at the helm. Bimal Lakra, Spanish star Juan Paablo Escarre and goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan make the team more formidable.
Dilip Tirkey's Hyderabad Sultans, despite having the services of Sohail Abbas and Wasim Ahmed (both Pakistan), look a moderate team while Bangalore Hi-Fliers have a balanced side with Prabodh Tirkey, Mudassar Ali Khan, Len Aiyappa and Pawal Lakra in their ranks.
The First Division, which kicks-off on Friday, comprises Lucknow Nawaabs, led by Rajneesh Mishra, Chandigarh Dynamos (Sukhbir Singh Gill), Imphal Rangers (Brojen Singh), Delhi
Dazzlers (Anurag Raghuvanshi) and Bengal Tigers (Iqbal Singh).
The matches feature four quarters of 17-1/2 minutes each. But more radical would be the reduction of players on each side as a match heads for the tie-breaker.
While 11 players will be on the field during the 70-minute regulation time, a side would be reduced to nine in the first extended time of 15 minutes. The number would go down to seven in the next 10 minutes.
Hyderabad Sultans: Dilip Tirkey (captian), S Rajasekhar, Inderjeet Singh Chadha, Ajitesh Rai, Harsha Vardhan, Chandan Singh, Suresh, Lazarus Barla, Sameer Dad, Cyril Ekka, Sreejesh (goalkeeper), Nitya Jayanand, Susan Topno, Ahmed Alam (goalkeeper, Pakistan), Sohail Abbas and Wasim Ahmed (Pakistan).
Coach: Narendra Pal Singh.
Bangalore Hi-Fliers: Arjun Halappa (captain), Bharat Kumar Chetri and Kuttappa (goalkeepers), Irshad Ali, Ajay Kumar, Chandrasekhar Xalxo, VS Vinay, Len Aiyappa, Prabodh Tirkey, Pawal Lakra, Amar Aiyamma, Sabu Varkey, Sandeep Michael, Hari Prasad, Sunil Ekka, Tushar Khandekar, Muddassar Ali Khan (Pakistan) and Kuhan Shanmuganathan (Malaysia).
Coach: Ramesh Prameswaran.
Sher-e-Jallandhar: Gagan Ajit Singh (captain), Maninder Singh and Kamaldeep Singh (goalkeepers), Kanwalpreet Singh, Harpal Singh, Jatinder Pal Singh, Baljit Singh Saini, Prabhdeep Singh, Balwant Singh, Ajmer Singh, Baljit Singh Dhillon, Daljit Singh Dhillon, Prabhjot Singh, Deepak Thakur, Didar Singh, Parminder Singh, Mohammed Sarwar (Pakistan) and Noor Azlan (Malaysia).
Coach: Ramandeep Singh.
Maratha Warriors: Viren Rasquinha (captain), Adrian D'Souza and Baljit Singh (goalkeepers), Conroy Remedius, Jaswinder Singh, Sunil Yadav, Vijay Alphonso, Dhanraj Pillay, Girish Pimpale, Shivendra Singh, Devinder Kumar, Errol D'Silva, Hemant Ghete, Humza Mujtaba, Junaid Jada, Ali Raza, Mohammed Saqlain and Kashif Jawwad (Pakistan).
Coach: Clarence Lobo.
Chennai Veerans: Ignace Tirkey (captain), Devesh Chouhan and Rajarajan (goalkeepers), William Xalco, Nitin Kumar, Jagath Jothi, Vivek Gupta, Bimal Lakra, Prabakaran, Jagan Senthil, Adam Sinclair, Venkatesh, Raja, Birender Lakra, Sandeep Singh, Dilawar Hussain (Pakistan) and Juan Pablo Escarre (Spain).
Coach: Harendra Singh.