After poor performances in the World Cup and Doha Asian Games, Indian hockey players are looking for a fresh start this year at the Premier Hockey League, starting in Chennai on Thursday.
In its third year, the PHL will comprise of seven teams in a single division rather than two levels of five teams each as in the earlier editions.
Holders Bangalore Lions, runners-up Chandigarh Dynamos, Hyderabad Sultans, Chennai Veerans, Orissa Steelers, Maratha Warriors and Sher-e-Jalandhar will vie for top honours.
The tournament, which started two years ago, was aimed at increasing the game's dipping profile in the country. The first edition in Hyderabad ushered in a glamorous version of the game with superb television coverage and pitted some of the best talent in the country against each other. The event had also attracted big names like Spain's Juan Pablo Escarre, Argentina's Jorge Lombi and Pakistan's Sohail Abbas.
The second leg will be played in Chandigarh from February 11, which will see bigger stars like Australia's Jamie Dwyer, Brent Livermore and Spain's Santi Freixa.
But with Indian hockey at its lowest ebb, the organisers have had to work harder. They have revamped the format, stretched the duration of the tournament to two months over two cities and brought in as many as 30 foreign players, including 12 from Pakistan.
"Let's not confuse the PHL with the national hockey team. The PHL has been one of the big plusses for Indian hockey," said Maratha Warriors captain Viren Rasquinha, who is looking to make a comeback into the Indian side after controversially losing out on a place for the Doha Asian Games.
"They have done immensely well over the past two years; it has given some good quality hockey and have helped to popularise hockey among the masses.
"If you look back, the second edition threw up players like Shivendra Singh and Raghunath and now they are in the Indian team and in fact doing very well for the team. It can't obviously give all 11 players, but if the PHL can produce even one or two good players every year it will be great for Indian hockey," added Rasquinha, one of the country's best mid-fielders.
2005 champions Hyderabad Sultans and hosts Chennai Veerans play the tournament opener on Thursday.
India captain Dilip Tirkey, who led the Sultans to the title in the first edition, will play for the Orissa Steelers, who won Tier II last year.
Maratha Warriors finished last in 2006, and with the captain intent on proving a point or two, the team is hoping to make amends this season.
"It is a very important tournament for me," said Rasquinha. "I am proud to captain the Warriors and was very upset last year. I have modest aspirations from my team, and the first aim will be survival."
Foreign Players for the Chennai leg:
Albert Casas- Spain
Ehsan Ullah- Pakistan
Muhamad Zabair- Pakistan
Don Prins- Netherlands
Cesco Van Der Vliet-Netherlands
Thijs De Greff-Netherlands
Sander Van Der Weide-Netherlands
Balder Bomans- Netherlands
Sajjad Anwar- Pakistan
Timo Bruinsma- Netherlands
Tariq Aziz- Pakistan