Champions Trophy a big test for India
The gold-medal winning performance at the Incheon Asian Games and the bilateral Test series triumph in Australia may not count for much when India go into the Champions Trophy to take on the world's truly best sides.
Still, there is a definite improvement in the intrinsic strength of the Indian team in the last year or so. Is it because of the assemblage of a strong support staff with two well-known thinkers of the game, coach Terry Walsh and High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans, planning it all or is it because of the Hockey India League (HIL) exposure the players got to take on the best in the business?
It has to be a combination of both. Though the players may not publicly talk in complimentary terms about Walsh for obvious reasons, but in private they do admit his immense contribution in driving and motivating them.
Hockey India League changing the game in the country
In two years, the HIL has done a world of good to Indian hockey. Some of the world's best teams like Germany and the Netherlands have benefited from their highly competitive leagues. Now the Belgian League is the most attractive for players and no wonder the country is among the top four nations in world hockey.
HIL has doled out big money to top international stars and some like Sardar Singh, the highest paid Indian star, got over Rs.42 lakh. That kind of money should motivate any player. Every player will try hard to retain his place with enhanced fees and that will automatically help the national team.
Whether the franchises are showing interest in hockey to make money or are genuinely wanting to help India regain its stature internationally is immaterial. They have brought crowds back to the stadiums and offered attractive sums to get the stars from around the hockey world to come and play in India.
With two more teams joining with the existing six in two years, the HIL should be the premier nursery for Indian hockey and with it the national team also will look up.
In the last year or so, the Indian team has performed very well, though their ninth-place finishing at the World Cup will rankle.
Terry Walsh will be missed
If India don't do well in the Bhubaneswar Champions Trophy they will have a ready excuse, missing coach Terry Walsh who was sacked by the high-handed Hockey India (HI) president Narinder Batra barely days before the crucial assignment.
When the officials are seized by their ego, nothing matters to them. Unfortunately for Walsh, he was up against a man who now thinks he is Indian hockey.
Walsh's good work must be acknowledged whatever may be his other faults. He had piloted the team to win the Asian Games title after 16 years to get a direct entry to the Rio Olympics, beating Pakistan, and then winning the series in Australia comprehensively 3-1. Just when he was looking forward to carrying the team to the next level to compete with top teams of the world, he was told not to return from home to take charge. He, too, proved a difficult person to deal with.
In events like the Champions Trophy, every game has far-reaching consequences. A win in the first match of the league phase can do wonders to the team and a loss will pull them down. When top eight teams of the world are competing, there are no easy matches.
Moreover, India would like to improve their Champions Trophy record which is not anything to rave about. They finished on the podium only once, in 1982 at Amstelveen, though they can claim to have come close to doing it on six other occasions but they were beaten four times by Pakistan and twice by Germany.
Sardar Singh niggle only cloud in otherwise bright skies
India are in Pool B in the Bhubaneswar edition with Germany, Olympic and World Cup silver-medallists the Netherlands and World Cup bronze-medallists Argentina.
In Pool A, world champions Australia are clubbed with Belgium, Pakistan -- the only Asian team to win the cup thrice, and England.
The Indians for once look a confident lot, but on the eve of their opening game against Germany they are worried about their captain Sardar Singh's fitness with a calf problem.
With two of better-known drag-flickers in the side and a hard-running forward line, India should be able to match other tough sides. The best testimonial for India came from Australia's Eddie Ockenden, who doubles up as playmaker and striker.
He finds India a much improved team and feels they are the team to look at closely.
He feels India have a good chance of winning after seeing the way they played in the Asian Games and in Australia.
The Indians know that their impressive record this year notwithstanding, they will have to perform a notch up to create an impact in Bhubaneswar.
First published at:(Column: Just Sport)