Over the past few weeks, there have been discussions, debates, selection meetings, player-coach sessions over what would be the best schedule to follow for a national team searching for answers to decades of under-performance on the global stage. Ranked sixth in the world and trying to barge into the top four, ambitious enough to muscle their way into the top two, India begin a defining 2018 hockey campaign at the Sultan Azlan Shah Tournament in Ipoh, Malaysia which could very well set the tone for the rest of the year.
With the International Hockey Federation (FIH) releasing the Pools for the year-end World Cup, India would have been excited to see that they face Belgium, South Africa and Canada. ‘Hold your horses’, coach Sjoerd Marijne would have said. ‘It’s just the Pool. It’s a long trek to 28 November’; the opening day of the FIH World Cup when India take on South Africa, in front of more than 15,000 frenzied Bhubaneswar fans while the rest of the country hopes for something substantial. It’s been 43 years since India last won the World Cup in 1975 or even played a semi-final.
The Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament may not give ranking points, Olympic-lustre medals or even a direct entry into the World Cup semi-finals (now that’s a delicious thought!) but in that compact, beautiful Sultan Azlan Shah Stadium in Ipoh, Perak, it will be the commencement of a journey that would give a peek into the immediate composition of the Indian team and proof that when faced with the likes of World No 1 Australia and Olympic Champions Argentina, does India fold or stand erect. Are they capable of giving back as good as they receive?
India, five times champions in the past, with two silver and seven bronze in 20 appearances haven’t brought their first team. Now that’s a riddle, but it could also be that the think-tank — coach Sjoerd Marijne and High Performance Director David Jones — are just playing a teaser before announcing a set of players intrinsic to the team in the important campaigns spread through the year.
Marijne has rotated players, exposing youngsters to the stress of playing higher ranked teams with the players coming off well. In any international sport, when facing a top-four-ranked team, there is only one way out: stand up or fold away. Most youngsters, like Dipsan Tirkey and Vivek Prasad, have shown rare verve, vigour, sparkle and zing. Vivek will not be in Ipoh but Dipsan gets another opportunity to showcase his talent and seal a place for the Commonwealth Games or the tournaments in the later part of the year.
Missing from the list are the forwards Akashdeep Singh, SV Sunil, Mandeep Singh, the captain Manpreet Singh in the midfield, the two key defenders plus penalty corners flickers, Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh and the inspirational goalkeeper P Sreejesh; one way or the other, these seven are definite selections in an Indian team. With Sreejesh being rested, Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak get another chance to cement their places. Three youngsters Mandeep Mor, Sumit Kumar and Shilanand Lakra make their debut in the senior team and it would be interesting to see how they fare against some of the best in the world.
India’s defence would be under Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar and Dipsan being the key players with rotations happening around Rohidas and Sanjeev Xess. Upfront, you have the familiar face of Ramandeep Singh, now vice-captain, with Gurjant Singh and Talwinder Singh. It does lack the guile, trickery and finesse of an Akashdeep and the speed of SV Sunil, but Marijne has understood enough about Ramandeep and Gurjant to be able to sustain moments with their speed and muscular play.
It’s the midfield where things get interesting. Sardar Singh is back in the team as captain. There is talk that having given the captaincy to Sardar, it’s a kind of ‘agreed’ mutual send off. But that would be too simplistic an argument and falling prey to a bit of rumour-mongering since Sardar himself has thrown the gauntlet to remain fit and fight for a place in the national team for the World Cup and beyond. Supported by SK Uthappa, who himself is under pressure to perform, the young and peppy Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma and Simranjeet Singh, Sardar has to impress in leadership skills and also send a message that the skills that made him one of India’s most influential players in the last 5-7 years are not on the wane.
"It’s a great feeling to captain the Indian team. I will try to give my best as only a good showing on the turf can make a difference," Sardar said. "I need to stay fit and play good hockey, which is the only way to survive."
The pressure has been on him since the time he was left out of the Hockey World League Finals. Ipoh is not new to Sardar. In 2008, he captained the team to silver and then again in 2015 and 2016 he led the team to a bronze and silver. As captain, he has never finished without a medal. But he hasn’t won the Azlan Shah yet. Just before the team flew to Malaysia, Sardar said, "It is extremely important to start the tournament well. A good match against Argentina will give the team the confidence for the rest of the matches to follow. We have beaten teams like Australia and England in the past and have done well against Argentina too. We just need to ensure we play in a structured manner and execute the team's plans."
Sardar knows that structures are a result of discipline. And to expect that in moments of pressure and stress from a team that does look short on experience when compared to Olympic champions Argentina and Hockey World League Final winners Australia would be asking a bit too much. Yet, blooding players is a must and Sardar playing positively would certainly inspire the others. The Indian captain finds himself back in the midfield even though after the Dhaka Asia Cup he had said he preferred the role of a free man at the back. "The team plays the way the coach structures us," said Sardar. "I will give my best in the midfield or defence."
The challenge would of course come from Olympic champions Argentina who won the tournament in 2008 when Sardar was captain, beating India in the final 2-1 with Carlos Retegui as coach. Now Retegui is gone, having resigned his position. It is a shock for Argentina, for the man was responsible for taking the South Americans to Olympic gold. Yet the team that would enter the field in Ipoh is extremely strong with Juan Manuel Vivaldi, Pedro Ibarra, Diego Paz, Lucas Vila, Matias Paredes, Gonzalo Peillat and Lucas Rossi being the pace setters. For Argentina, this is their only fifth Cup appearance in 35 years and first since 2012. It would also be interesting to see how Argentina fare without Retegui, the man who lead them to Cup glory at the 2015 Pan American Games, 2016 Summer Olympics and 2017 Pan American Cup.
The other contender and almost certain of a place in the final would be Australia who finished runners-up to Great Britain at the last Azlan Shah. The Australians have won the Cup nine times and have reached a record 13 Azlan Shah Finals. Coach Colin Batch has recalled 12 players who played the HWL Finals last year. It will take more than just skill and power to beat an Aussie side that has never finished below bronze in the competition. England will also feature more than ten players from last year’s winning team. But off late the team has been under a cloud, winning only five of their last 13 official matches.
Ireland make their debut at the Azlan Shah and is one of the most pugnacious teams globally. Recently, they finished second in a Five Nations tournament beating Canada, Scotland and the United States before losing the final to Spain. And having qualified for the 2018 World Cup, they would want a few scalps to raise morale within the ranks.
India’s bugbear of sorts has always been hosts Malaysia. Even last year, they beat India 0-1 and then crushed hopes of a HWL semi-final in London by beating India in a virtual quarter-final match. Stephen Van Huizen, Malaysian coach was in Bhubaneswar during the HWL Finals watching the rest of the teams and preparing for the World Cup. "Wins and only wins can make you progress through the rankings and even the Azlan Shah is important for us to create a winning mentality in a year with so many important tournaments," said Stephen.
For the World Cup, Malaysia has been drawn in Group D together with World No 4 the Netherlands, Germany (5th) and Pakistan (13th), but Van Huizen is adamant they will progress. "We are certain we are in with a chance to qualify for the quarter-finals because there is a slight change in format where only the winners of each group qualify automatically for the knockout stage while teams who finish second and third respectively will have to play a cross-over round to qualify for the quarter-finals," he said in an interview to the New Straits Times. The road to that possible quarter-final berth begins in Ipoh at the Azlan Shah.
The teams, star players, a challenging year and history will all come together to make this an excellent Azlan Shah in recent memory. For India, it could get slightly bumpy but despite lack of a world class penalty corner flicker, the team would ride on its youthful exuberance, a coach hell-bent on producing results, a captain out to tell his detractors that age is only a number, and a team that writes a story of consistent achievement not just a boom and bust drama.
Updated Date: Mar 02, 2018 08:50 AM