World Series Hockey -- Curtain raiser for semi-finals
After a month of exhilarating action, the Bridgestone World Series Hockey finally winds down to a potentially exciting climax on Sunday night when the title round will be staged at the Mahindra Stadium in Mumbai.
Prior to that, four of the remaining teams will lock horns & tusks in the semi-finals on Saturday. The league has been one helluva roller coaster for all teams with runaway victories and startling upsets being the order of the day. Individual and collective reputations were made and unmade on balmy evenings as the nation romanced the global and domestic heroes, past and present, of our own beautiful game once more.
Here is a curtain raiser of the two semi-finals that will be played tomorrow (April 1):
07.00 pm Sher-E-Punjab (2) vs Karnataka Lions (3) – Bangalore
Sher-E-Punjab, the runaway leaders of the WSH for the most part, take on the one-time basement team Karnataka Lions whom nobody expected to reach the knock out stage. But here are Jude Felix’s surprise packet, the most improved team in the competition, hoping the home support will power the Lions past the overwhelming favourites.
The Bangalore team did get the better of the Jalandhar outfit in the second leg (2-1) after being trounced by a tennis score (6-1) in the first phase. Rajinder Singh’s experienced wards, who have been with him since their junior India days, possess that Punjabi aggression that helps them steamroll past timid opposition and this will serve them in good stead tomorrow.
In top field goal scorer and spearhead Deepak Thakur (11), skipper Prabhjot Singh, Mandeep Antil, Gagan Ajit Singh and the withdrawn forward Mathew Hotchkis, Punjab have a crack and speedy attack which can rip any defence apart, while the attacking right half V S Vinaya, Pakistani import Tariq Aziz, pivot Prabhdeep Singh Powar and Inderjeet made up a thrusty midfield. The backline comprising Harpal and Harpreet are competent. Where the Shers cede superiority to the Lions is in the goalkeeping and the penalty corner departments, though they have an adequate back up in Bikramjeet here.
“We had some good rest in between, and we are now ready for the semi-final. We had already qualified for the semis and therefore the match against Delhi Wizards (which they lost 5-7) wasn’t that important,” Sher coach Rajinder Singh said.
The Lions will ride on the prowess of bald headed Len Aiyappa who will seek to improve upon his tally of 13 goals scored from the set pieces so far. The Coorgi and his equally burly Pakistani partner Zeeshan Ashraf have mounted a robust defence and their good work at the back is complimented by Devesh Chauhan under the bar who has held his end up admirably. Pakistani Adnan Maqsood has kept the supply line going with great gusto in the midfield while the slippery Arjun Halappa, livewire Ravipal Singh and the youthful contingent of Jarnail Singh, Naveen Kumar, Arun Antil and Vinayak Bijwad plus nippy Malaysian striker Mohammed Radzi have proved quite a handful for any defence.
“It’s a team effort. That is what made the difference for us. We were last in the league at one stage but we kept speaking to each other and motivating ourselves. If I am scoring well, I’m just doing my job,” Aiyappa opined.
The Bangalore side have the capacity to orchestrate some fluent build ups and Jude Felix’s tactical acumen might prompt him to opt for ball possession and keeping things at an even keel to blunt the pace and thrust of the opposition. A tactical battle is on the cards with the Shers enjoying a distinct edge unless Len the Lionheart turn up and spoils their party.
09:00 pm Chandigarh Comets (1) vs Pune Strykers (4) — Mumbai
On current form Chandigarh Comets are the team to beat in the semis though unpredictable Pune Strykers, who oscillate between the ridiculous and the sublime, can spoil their party if the northerners have an off day.
Hrendra Singh’s team, who have scored the most number of goals (46) and conceded the least (34) in the high scoring league, have a potent strike force in the voracious goal poacher Sukhwinder Singh Gabbar of Canada (10 goals), fleet-footed Bharat Chikara, mercurial schemer Sher Singh (a low profile but highly effective player), the much improved skipper Rehan Butt plus a supporting cast comprising Mohammed Amir Khan and Ramandeep. In the midfield Ajjitesh Roy stands out with his high work rate while New South Wales imports Matthew Phillips and Robert Green are an effective defensive pairing.
What imparts more punch to this lethal combination is young drag flicker Gurjinder (18 goals) who can displace Imran Warsi (19) as the top scorer of the tournament if he is on target.
“This is the biggest platform for Indian hockey and world hockey outside the Olympics and the World Cup. All the four teams have the potential to win the title, but the team which can play to the plan, will eventually succeed,” Harendra Singh, Comets coach, said on the eve of the final.
The Strykers are a mercurial lot and generate much passion and pace but have often displayed vulnerability as they are have been unable to hold onto a lead or close out a match.
Still, in Argentine legend Mario Almada they have arguably the most skillful forward in the tournament and his ability to manufacture penalty corners will have to be seized upon by currently misfiring drag flicker Gurpreet and new find Simrandeep Singh Randhawa for Pune to turn the tables. The Comets had won their earlier encounters, 1-3 and 4-3.
In experienced midfielder-captain Ken Pereira of Canada and the hardworking Roshan Minz, Bikash Toppo, Vikas Pillay and young guns Amit Gowda, Damandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmiah, coach Gundeep Kumar has his wares spread adequately all around the park. Goalkeeper Guri too has been in top gear of late and he will have to stand tall to bring the sky riding Comets down to earth. Playing close to home might stryke an empathic chord with the Mumbai spectators who can propel Pune to play out of their skins and turn the semi-final around.