The crucial pre-Champions Trophy practice camp of the Indian hockey team at the state-run Sports College in Lucknow, which ended today, was marred by some bad planning, even thoughtlessness.
The camp was spread over 20 days and originally scheduled to have 40 sessions. But eleven of those sessions were cancelled. Why? Because the players had to attend felicitations and functions charted out by the new sponsor of Indian hockey, Sahara India, which was also the camp host.
Captain Dhanraj Pillay and coaches Rajinder Singh and Baldev Singh were tight-lipped on the issue. But some other members of the team opened up on condition of anonymity. "Can you imagine a special training camp preceding an important event like the Champions Trophy conducted in such a callous manner?" a disgusted senior member said.
A player remarked, "The sponsors seemed more interested in their own publicity and were leaving no stone unturned to extract every bit out of the team to promote their own company, rather than pushing the game."
The players were unhappy at being showcased like commodities at an exhibition. "We had to abandon practice because some Bollywood star was coming the other day," the player said. "Another day was hijacked by a large TV team that wanted us to perform for their show, that ended up trampling the new astroturf at the Sports College."
He said most of the players felt stifled. "We were virtually like bonded labour taking each step under the close scrutiny of sponsors," he said. What riles the players more is that they have not even been told what remuneration they will be entitled to on account of the sponsorship deal, though the team is already being referred to as the 'Sahara India hockey team'.
Indian Hockey Federation president Kanwar Pal Singh Gill was not available for comment, because he is away in the United States on a lecture tour. But IHF secretary K Jothikumaran, who spoke to rediff.com on telephone from his room in Lucknow's Taj Residency hotel late at night, denied outright that the sponsor's demands had caused any disruption in the team's training schedules.
Abhijit Sarkar, the Sahara representative entrusted with the task of looking after the team, also denied that the sponsor's activities had encroached on the players' practice sessions.
Speaking to rediff.com on telephone earlier in the evening, Sarkar admitted that a couple of sessions were delayed because of shoots, but said there was no way 11 sessions were missed on account of activities organised by the sponsor.
Sarkar said the camp was conducted in Lucknow because that is where the Sahara Group has its headquarters and it could ensure the best of facilities for the players, including accommodation in Sahara City, the group's township in the city.
Asked about the players' complaint relating to their remuneration, Jothikumaran said the information had not been withheld and they all knew exactly how much they would get, but there was no need for the figures to be disclosed to the media.
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