India junior hockey team face tough challenge

July 10th, 2008 - 7:33 pm ICT by IANS  

By Avishek Roy
Hyderabad, July 10 (IANS) Future stars of Indian hockey are up against some strong teams in the region in the eight-nation Junior Asia Cup which kicks off with the hosts taking on Japan at Gachibowli Stadium here Friday. The glorious days of India hockey saw them win eight Olympic gold medals but today it is dismissed as folklore. The so-called national sport has been groaning, the Indians unable to find their feet against strong European countries and even struggling to maintain pace with emerging teams like China.

It has stumbled from one disaster to another. And the biggest of them all came early in the year when India for the first time failed to qualify for the Olympics. All these years the administrators were living in a make-believe world, refusing to accept that the hockey prowess of the country is on the wane. The wake-up call could not have been more harsh and telling.

The offshoot of the debacle was the supersession of K. P. S. Gill-led Indian Hockey Federation and the appointment of an ad-hoc committee put in its place. The transition phase saw a silver lining when the team finished runners-up at the Azlan Shah Cup at Ipoh, Malyasia.

The core of that team, led by Gurbaz Singh, will be out to prove that Azlan Shah performance in May is not a one-off thing and that the future of Indian hockey is in safe hands.

Indian coach A K Bansal, who was also the coach at the Azlan Shah tournament, spelt out the importance of the event.

“The juniors have improved with each tournament in the last two years and that was the reason why we reached the final of the Azlan Shah Cup. Seven players from that side are here and this tournament is very important for us in many aspects because this team is going to be the future of Indian hockey. Most of these players should go on to play in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Cup,” said Bansal

Defending Champions India though will face a tough ask in the pool A which also have Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. Group B comprises Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Korea and Oman.

Pakistan and Korea will be tough nuts for the Indian team, but Bansal is confident of a good showing.

“We have some good performances under our belt in the two junior tournaments in Germany and Kuala Lumpur where we finished fourth and second. The players are now ready to take one step ahead and win the Asia Cup,” he said.

In both the tournaments, young drag-flicker Diwakar Ram emerged as the highest scorer with eight goals in Germany and 12 in Kuala Lumpur.

“He is the mainstay of the team. He has improved with every game and left his stamp in Azlan shah,” Bansal said.

Among the forwards, S V Sunil, Mandeep Antil, Gurvinder Chandi played in Azlan Shah along with Roshan Minz, Pramod, Danish Mujtaba and Jagwant.

“I have a problem of plenty there. They are all talented. The trio who played in Azlan Shah were the ones who set up the moves and earned penalty corners for the team,” said Bansal.

All the players who were part of Azlan Shah team will play Friday with Innocent Kullu, Diwakar taking care of defence. Goalkeeper Sreejesh P R have stood rock solid behind the bars in junior tournaments.

Bansal said knew little about the Japanese and will not make the mistake of taking them lightly.

“We have never played them before. They are in the middle rung in Asia. But we do not know much about them. It is our opening game and we can’t take them as easy prey.”

Gurbaz Singh, who is captaining the team for the first time said that they will have to win this tournament at any cost.

“Last time we won in Pakistan and this time it is on our home turf. We cannot afford to lose this tournament. If we win this tournament, it will certainly have an impact on the game,” Gurbaz told IANS.

This is also a qualification tournament for the Junior World cup next year in Malaysia and Singapore. Though it is still not clear how many teams will qualify as the number of participating teams have come down to eight from 10 after the pull out of Thailand and China.

In other matches Friday, Singapore will play Malaysia in the opening match in Pool A, Oman will clash with Pakistan in Pool B, Korea will take on Bangladesh in Pool B.

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