Premier Handball League: Little-known sport hopes to raise its game in new avatar

Beyond the marketing lines of the tournament, if conducted well, the consensus seems to be that the Premier Handball League will make a difference for the sport in India. PHL Media

First up, what's the Premier Handball League?

A franchise-based league for the sport of handball, modelled on the likes of the Indian Premier League and the Pro Kabaddi League. Run by Bluesport Entertainment, it will have six teams participating in it in its inaugural season. It'll be held at the Sawai Mansingh indoor stadium, Jaipur from June 8 to 25.

A women's league is being planned for the next season.

Who are these six teams?

The Delhi Panzers, Rajasthan Patriots, Garvit Gujarat, Golden Eagles Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra Ironmen and Telugu Talons.

What is the handball ecosystem in India like?

Most players start handball at schools, especially in Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi. Quite a few pick the sport because it offers the twin benefits of playing an Olympic sport and the possibility of getting a good (government) job - the defence forces and the railways have strong handball teams.

Internationally, India's performances have been quite poor. India have competed in the Asian Games in five of the 10 editions that have had handball (including the last four), but have never finished above 8th (and that was in '82).

Meanwhile, the women's team have competed in the Asiad only in the last four editions (out of eight) and their best finish is also eighth. They've never qualified for the Olympics or the World Championships.

The current captain (and goalkeeper) of the Indian team and the Rajasthan Patriots, Atul Kumar insists, though, that the talent is absolutely there... that there is no un-bridge-able gap in skill level between India and others.

If not a lack of talent, what stops them?

Circumstances, for one. Internationally, the sport is played indoors. All major competitions, from the Olympics to the World Championships to the Asian Games are played on taraflex flooring with gum balls.

Within India, though, handball is played almost exclusively outdoors - on open, muddy fields, with leather balls.

Wait, that's almost like playing a completely different sport!

It absolutely is.

From the speed of ball movement (on the floor and in the air) and the way you dribble, to the style of taking shots and the manner of defending, everything changes. As Atul says, "It's about as different as practising cricket with a tennis ball and then going and playing with a leather one... Even more, actually."

Can the PHL make a difference?

Beyond the marketing lines of the tournament, if conducted well, the consensus seems to be that the PHL will make a difference.

The tangible effects can be seen in various aspects:

  • Infrastructure -- The PHL will be played on taraflex flooring, with gum balls and the players. That brings obvious benefits.

  • Regular competition -- Currently in India, this is very limited. "I've been an India player for ten years," says Atul. "I've only played in ten competitions for India, and I'm a regular in the team."

    It's improving slowly, he says, with the Federation sending the team on more exposure tours over the past couple of years.

    Meanwhile, the one major domestic competition everyone plays is the national championships; while those employed by the defence forces also have the inter-services championships and the railways have the inter-railways championships. There may be a few invitational competitions organised informally but nothing that's scheduled.

    The PHL would become the first such league - and the players, enamoured by European club handball (the highest level of the game), can't help but be excited at the prospect.

  • Support staff -- Deepak Ahlawat, of the Delhi Panzers and former skipper of the Indian team, raves about the one-on-one attention that is being paid in the pre-tournament camp by his club. "We have four people with us all the time, taking care of all our needs."

    There are physiotherapists, masseurs, and nutritionists. "Players need a free mind - it's not just about financial security, but also knowing that there are physios and others supporting us all the time. Normally, we'd never be assured that an injury would be rectified 100% because we'd have to manage it all ourselves, but [there's some confidence now]."

    "Those I would consider as hygiene," says Abhishek Reddy, owner of the Telugu Talons (and the PVL team Hyderabad Blackhawks). "This is basic stuff that needs to happen. Without [players], we don't have a team or a league."

    Reddy adds, "Many players don't have access to a year-round coach, some don't even have regular playing partners." These are areas that the owners are putting focus on. Like the players, they believe the raw talent is there: it just needs help. Atul, for instance, learnt new goalkeeping techniques off YouTube.

    To rectify this, hiring foreign coaches who can introduce different techniques and coaching methodologies is part of the plan.

  • Growth booster -- Deepak says the PHL will drive more players to take up the sport. Simply because it provides them with an end goal. How many people can the Services or the Railways hire for handball, he asks rhetorically.

    It's this opportunity that is a key driver for the franchise owners too. Reddy says, "With the sizeable population we have, cricket cannot be the only sport. [He wants to] introduce and create as many opportunities as possible for kids. You may not be good at cricket but that doesn't mean you're not good enough [to play sport]."

    "It's not enough to just go to the grassroots and start creating something," he says. "The moment you put the lights on and show it on television, there is a sexiness [and an awareness] to the sport and kids can start imagining themselves to be in that league... it gives them a vision."

  • Visibility -- As Deepak says, "When you go to your hometown and a few people look up at you and say, 'I've seen him play, I've watched him on TV'... an athlete becomes very happy."

But... how financially sustainable is it?

Most franchise owners in the league own teams in other leagues also (like Reddy) and they understand that it's a long-run game financially. "We know our numbers," says Punit Balan, owner of the Maharashtra Ironmen (and eight other franchises across different sports). "You are not going to go into profits the first year itself. But we try to touch break-even or keep it at a minimum loss."

"We've seen PKL: how it started and where it is today," he says. "Only those who can stay for the long-term should be in the game [as franchise owners]. You cannot come today and pull out in two years. You have to stick with it for five years and then only will we see the results."

Getting the infrastructure in, meanwhile, is another long-term process. "I'm struggling to get a stadium [for training] that is 40x20," says Reddy. "... but we'll get there!"

The common factor that binds owners, the promoter and players is this hope. Oh, and the sheer excitement of starting something new, something better.

Handball 101

What are the rules?

Think football but with smaller goalposts (2m x 3m) and absolutely no use of the feet (intentionally using any body part below the knee is a foul - unless you are a goalkeeper). The aim of the game is to get the ball into the goal.

The court is 40m x 20m - with goals at the centre of each end. There is a 6m (20ft) zone around each goal where only the defending goalkeeper is allowed to be -- one must score from outside (or while diving into) this zone.

How long is a game?

Sixty minutes; with two halves of 30 minutes separated by a 10-minute break.

How many players are there in a handball team?

There are seven members in each team (six outfield and one goalkeeper) and there are unlimited rolling substitutes. Also, there are two referees, standing diagonally aligned.

How do you move the ball?

A player cannot take more than three steps without either shooting, passing, or dribbling the ball. Dribbling here, though, involves bouncing the ball and then catching it (i.e. not basketball-style dribbling). You can stand stationary with the ball in your possession only for three seconds - and you cannot pass it to yourself.

Who are the traditional world powers in handball?

France are the most decorated in men's handball (three Olympic golds, six World Championships). Qatar, who won silver in the 2015 Worlds, are in fact the only non-European men's team to ever medal at either big event.

2020 Olympics podium: 1. France, 2. Denmark, 3. Spain
2023 Worlds podium: 1. Denmark, 2. France, 3. Spain

In Asia, Qatar are the dominant new force (won Asiad the last two times), but the traditional superpower is South Korea (6-time Asiad gold medalists).