Four minutes from half-time, a couple of miscreants, having made it past the security barriers, strategically positioned themselves in front of the photographers, and proceeded to wave banners while simultaneously shouting slogans. The duo, proclaiming themselves to be members of the student wing
of a right-wing party, were protesting the inclusion of Pakistan players in the inaugural edition of the Hockey India League, in the face of the recent events at the border.
It was the one moment during the opening match between the Delhi Waveriders and Punjab Warriors that would have made one go ‘what the hell.’ In most other senses, the start of the highly-anticipated league was quite tempered, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Compared to the week before, Monday evening was not all that cold. But even the combination of the weather gods easing up and every Delhiite's dream - free entry to an otherwise gated event - was not enough for people in the Capital to come out in large numbers.
So, even though the stands did not exactly wear a deserted look - if anything, the turnout was more than what one saw during last year's World Series Hockey - the pockets of empty seats here and there underwhelmed. So did the opening ceremony, despite its mix of laser lights, fireworks, skaters and a gymnast tethered to a balloon and suspended high above the turf.
But those aspects are dispensable - what's not is the game-play, which one expected to be top-notch.
Oskar Deecke scored off a deflection to give Delhi the lead in the first quarter, before Gurvinder Chandi darted down the right flank before sounding the board to make it 2-0 by the halfway stage. Seven minutes into the third period, Kieran Govers reduced the deficit with a neat reverse flick.
But apart from the high-octane runs and other odd flashes of brilliance, both teams gave the impression of still trying to gel as units.
Sure, compatriots knew how to combine with each other, but when it came to players not used to playing with each other, the co-ordination was lacking. After the match, Punjab captain Jamie Dwyer, admitted as much, "The level of play on both sides wasn't up to the mark. The international players still seem to be in off-season mode", while Delhi coach Ajay Bansal said, "This was kind of like a practice match for us."
One can only hope that, with a few more practice sessions to boot, the across-the-board rustiness will wear off.