New-look Indian men start favourites

New-look Indian men start favourites

No place for complacency as 2014 World Cup berth is at stake

The hockey fans of the capital, fresh from the high of the Hockey India League, would now get an added dose of action when the national team participates in the week-long Hockey World League Round 2, beginning on Monday at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

Six men's and women’s teams would fight for a berth in the semifinals in June. The semifinals would determine the line-up for the 2014 World Cup to be held in the Netherlands with 12 qualification spots at stake. There would be four Round 2 tournaments spread in more than one continent following a single pool round- robin format.

In the men’s category, here, India (ranked 11th in the world) are joined in by Ireland (15), China (18), Oman (36), Bangladesh (40) and Fiji (71). India open their campaign against Fiji on Monday with all the matches involving the home team to be played under floodlights.

Led by Sardar Singh, the Indian men are the favourites. Most of them had participated in the just-concluded HIL where they rubbed shoulders with some top international players. Richer in experience, confidence and match practice, the gap between the HIL and the HWL has allowed the players to have some rest, and recovery in some other cases.

The new-look Indian team, after the London Olympic Games debacle, rustled up some encouraging results in their last few outings including the Champions Trophy, where they beat Belgium to enter the semifinals. This tournament, without any fancied rivals, is expected to be a cakewalk for the hosts, which would need to keep complacency at bay.

The biggest challenge for India will come from Ireland, ranked only four rungs below them while China has proved to be a party-spoiler in the past. For Oman, Bangladesh and Fiji, it will be more about gaining experience of competing in a world-level event.

The Indian squad for the event includes some new names-- Malak Singh and Mandeep Singh, who showed promise during the HIL, and Gurjinder Singh, who has had an impressive domestic season.

These three players along with a few others have been drafted in the squad to test them before the junior World Cup which would be hosted here in December.

Gurjinder also enhances India’s drag-flicking options, currently led by vice-captain VR Raghunath and Rupinder Singh. Goalkeeping, however, can be a concern for India but Sardar was confident that his two goalkeepers would be back to their best.

Stiff test for women

Unlike their men counterparts it would be a stiffer test for the Indian women. Though, ranked 12, behind the top-ranked Japan (9), the low-profile women side would have to fight against self-doubts and injuries to emerge winners.

In the absence of senior players, the young team is led by Ritu Rani and would have Fiji (59th), Russia (20th), Malaysia (22nd) and Kazakhstan (33) as their rivals.

Under their new coach Neil Hawgood, the Indian girls had worked on their fitness and appear eager to show their progress in the last one year. Their 3-0 victory over Russia in the warm-up game gave them some confidence but they wouldn’t like to read too much into it.

The occasion could get the better of the younger lot, a possibility which Hawgood conceded, but felt such exposures were the only way to make them tougher. Injury to their key-player Poonam Rani is a setback.

India will play their first match against Kazakhstan on Monday, and that would give a glimpse of their preparations.

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