Would Champions Trophy trigger a turnaround in Indian hockey?
The London Olympics was a truly forgettable moment for not just the Indian hockey team, but for the many hockey fans as well, who would have found it extremely hard to stomach the fact that the blue shirts finished with a wooden spoon – what a low point for a team which has won the Olympic gold the most times – 8 times for the statistically-minded.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since that Olympics disaster. As on expected lines, the team was greeted with public backlash; players were lampooned and the already falling interest in the sport was only fast-forwarded.
For the first time in many years, the chief coach was not made the scapegoat – as is the case with Indian hockey, where a coach is dumped after every disappointing campaign in a major tournament. Michael Nobbs was spared the axe and here he is, once again spearheading the team on another important assignment – the FIH Champions Trophy – where India is participating as a wild card invitee.
The team will take the turf under a new captain Sardar Singh, after the London Olympics captain Bharat Chetri, along with several senior players like Sandeep Singh, Ignace Tirkey, Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandker were either dropped or rested (as we are made to believe).
Without a shadow of doubt, Sardar has a herculean task of getting the best out of his boys and pep up their morale, which took a real pounding at the London Olympics.
The Indian captain will be relying heavily on vice-captain Vokkaliga Raghunath to execute the penalty corner duties in an exemplary manner in the absence of a seasoned campaigner like Sandeep Singh. Young Rupinder Pal Singh is highly promising and would be expected to complement Raghunath in short corner execution. Expectations would also be high from young defender Harbir Singh, who would be keen to prove his worth on the big stage.
Indian defence was torn to shreds by the rival teams at the London Olympics, and all eyes will be on whether the team has really worked hard on plugging the loose holes in defence, as that will be the key in deciding how the team fares in the Champions Trophy.
A close look at India’s matches at the London Olympics would reveal how India paid a heavy price for silly defensive errors. A tight defence would play a big role in ensuring India stay competitive in the tournament, as they would be up against some of the world’s top teams.
Goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and PT Rao along with the backline of Raghunah and Co. must be alive to the situation all the time, as any slight lapse in concentration can cost us dearly. The London Olympics is a striking example of that.
Talking of Sardar, he would be looking for support in the midfield, which cut a sorry figure at the last Olympics. The return of Kothajit Singh to the senior side should ease some of the pressure on Sardar as the Manipuri lad is a lively customer and can play second fiddle to Sardar, while nullifying the offensive designs of the opposition. He and Birendra Lakra would have to work as a cohesive unit along with young turks Manpreet Singh and Gurmail Singh.
The Indian forward-line would be short on experience following the non-availability of Shivendra and Tushar, but very high on youth legs. Save for SV Sunil and Gurvinder Singh Chandi to some extent, the rest of the forward-line is replete with young faces. The likes of Sunil and Chandi would look for adequate support from the comeback lad Yuvraj Walmiki (who missed the Olympics because of a hamstring injury), Dharamvir Singh, Danish Mujtaba and SK Uthappa.
It remains to be seen how the likes of Akashdeep Singh and Nithin Thimmaiah respond to the big occasion; playing in a major tournament after coming through the junior ranks. From India’s perspective, one hopes that both have a successful transition to the senior level and play a big part in India’s success story at the State Netball Hockey Centre in Melbourne (the venue for the premier tournament).
Chief coach Nobbs would be hoping for a decent opening game for India, who lock horns with England on Saturday. May the Champions Trophy be the start button of India’s turnaround in world hockey.