Sultan Azlan Shah Cup presents a golden opportunity for India's youngsters
Two consecutive defeats later, the Indian hockey team at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup isn’t exactly facing flak from all quarters, but isn’t generating much positive vibes either. As often pointed out in the reports on these losses, it’s a young Indian side devoid of the likes of Sardar Singh, VR Raghunath and SV Sunil. But so are the other teams which have assembled in Malaysia, with focus duly on developing a side for the FIH Junior World Cup later in the year.
After a long break post Olympics, the Indian team was busy with continuous matches since International Super Series in November. In the last 5 months, the senior players have been involved in international tournaments as well as the marathon HIL where without a break of more than a day, they had to give their best in the middle.
India will face Pakistan home and away after the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and the fixtures demand fresher bodies in the middle. In this regard, Hockey India and Michael Nobbs must be commended for giving the much required break to the seniors for important tournaments ahead. Having qualified for the Hockey World League Round 3, it was a luxury India could afford.
Coming to the current team’s performances, it’s only a matter of being patient with the youngsters, some of whom have only been inducted into the squad and made their debuts as recently as last month. Gurjinder Singh, Malak Singh and Mandeep Singh have to be dealt with patiently by the Indian fans before getting ‘frustrated’ at their inexperience. Both Malak and Mandeep have had some scintillating moments in the middle, with Malak scoring twice in the tournament so far. Mandeep too has shown his brilliant pace up front, with which he proved so fruitful for Ranchi Rhinos in the recently concluded Hockey India League. Though there have been some missed chances in front of the goal, the duo’s combination for the goal against Korea today was simply a treat to watch. Coach Michael Nobbs too has stressed the importance of the youngsters adjusting to the international arena after tasting success at ‘domestic’ level.
Gurjinder Singh, the star of World Series Hockey, the ‘rebel’ league was also included in the side after much hullabaloo was created over the last year for ignoring the likes of him who were successful in the league. He’s not been used to full effect in the tournament yet, and fans would be hopeful of seeing more of the drag-flicker.
Talking of drag-flickers, the partnership of Rupinderpal Singh and VR Raghunath had developed quite well for India over the past few months and the duo were impressive for Delhi Waveriders and Uttar Pradesh Wizards respectively in the Hockey India League too. In Raghunath’s absence, Rupinder has done a decent job for the team although he too, according to coach Nobbs, “needs to be more accurate”. Gurjinder’s presence will further add to the team’s attack from set pieces.
But in the two matches so far, the most impressive has been custodian PR Sreejesh’s performance. His brilliant saves have kept the Indian side from trailing by plenty of goals, which the team would have conceded in the absence of the agile goalkeeper. If the matches have gone down the wire, it’s much due to the amazing skills shown by Sreejesh between the bars. India would need more of the same from the Tamil Nadu keeper in the coming games.
It’s a new look Indian team and they need some time to gel together as a unit and past the inexperience blues. India’s next match against Pakistan however, is going to bring the emotions flaring among the fans once again and the pressure will surely be on the inexperienced youngsters.