PIctured Above: David and Conor Harte, who play for Dabang Mumbai – the city’s newly-minted franchise, are the only two Irish men in the League.
Deepti Patwardhan reports
Mumbai: David and Conor Harte are happy to be in the sun. Not only because they get to escape from the winter chill in Ireland, but also for the bright stage the Hockey India League offers them. Even as hockey still largely languishes in the shadows of traditional Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football and commercial heavyweights soccer and rugby, the franchise driven League is turning the spotlight back on the game in India.
“Just look around you,” says 26-year-old Conor, standing in a corner of a foreign field that he will call home for a month. “All the effort that is being put in, all the hype around it. It’s absolutely fantastic!”
The Harte twins, who play for Dabang Mumbai – the city’s newly-minted franchise, are the only two Irish men in the League. And that alone will get them considerable attention, if their 6’5 frames won’t. They are plying their trade in a world far removed from theirs, and seem the better for it.
Consider the contrasts. They come from Kinsale, a town with a population just over 4000, to the sprawling, buzzing metropolis in India, with a population just over 18 million. From a country that is getting interested in hockey again and is battling to qualify for their first Olympics to a country that’s a traditional powerhouse in the game and has won eight gold and 11 Olympic medals in total.
“We really appreciate it and know lucky we are to do so,” says David, the older of the twins by eight minutes. While he guards the goal, brother Conor shores up the defence.
It’s a journey the brothers started on together at the age of 13.
“At school we could play rugby or hockey, so we played both. And we just enjoyed it,” says David, before Conor comes in to finish the sentence: “Eventually we started to be quite good at hockey and made it our main sport.”
Having been born in to a sporting family — their father played Gaelic football and uncle played soccer — the Hartes were brought up on a variety of sports. It was unlikely they would escape hurling, and they believe that it helped them with the hand-eye coordination and swing of the stick when they did eventually take up hockey as their favoured sport.
“Maybe I was just lazy,” says David with a laugh, when asked why he chose to become a goalkeeper.
“I can remember watching other goalkeepers and thinking I will give it a try. I played many racquet sports: badminton, tennis, squash, played a lot of football, hurling, which involved a lot of hand-eye co-ordination. And I thought why not…and then I fell in love with it.”
He has a career full of brilliant saves to validate the decision. Not only is he the first name on the Irish team list but has become the top choice in the Dabang Mumbai team too. Staunch in defence, he is effectively keeping out former India international and one of the top custodians the city has ever produced: Adrian D’Souza out of the playing XI.
With the FIH (International Hockey Federation) giving the Hockey India League its blessings, the tournament has grown in stature and attracted the best of national and international talent in the game. The Harte twins’ success in the high-profile event, they hope, will put Irish hockey, “on the international map.”
“We started off in 2006, we both made our caps on the same day (August 2006), which was fantastic, and we were 21st in the world ranking,” says Conor. “We have now moved up to 14th, the highest we have been in the men’s team,” he adds, charting the upward curve of this Irish team. The team is on the rise, but it is very often mistaken to be a recent entrant in the stick sport.
Ireland beat Wales 3-0 in the first-ever international hockey match in 1895. Ireland also competed when hockey was first introduced as an Olympic sport in 1908 London Games and won the silver. The Irish Senior Cup is one of the oldest hockey tournaments in the world. And the Harte brothers testify that the infrastructure and the school and provincial set-up of hockey in the country is plenty enough.
“It’s slowly getting bigger but it struggles because there are so many other bigger sports with a lot of money behind them. We have to pay to be on the national team,” says David, who fetched a price of $51,000 while Conor went for $10,000 in the HIL player auction.
Owing to their stint in India, David and Conor will miss out on the Ireland’s six-match hockey Test series in South Africa. But they will join the squad in San Diego for the 2016 Olympic qualifiers and the end of February. Having missed the bus, as they lost to South Korea with two seconds to go in their 2012 qualifying tournament in Dublin, the Harte twins seem desperate to make amends.
They are enjoying the relative calm of the HIL before that storm.