A formidable Indian team will be aiming to end their title drought spanning over a decade and half when they take on minnows Canada in their opening group league fixture in the 11th FIH Junior Hockey World Cup, starting on Thursday.
The last time when India won the junior world championship was back in 2001 in Hobart, Australia. It was a side that boasted of quality players like Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur, Yugraj Singh, Prabhjot Singh, all of whom went onto represent the senior national team with distinction.
German coach Valentin Altenburg has already declared India to be one of the top contenders for the title.
This is the second time that India are hosting the men’s junior World Cup in hockey, and also the second successive time it is being held in India.
New Delhi hosted the last edition in 2013, where Germany claimed their sixth title beating France 5-2 in the final.
A total of 16 teams have been put into four groups of four teams each. India are placed in Pool D alongside Canada, England and South Africa.
Should the home team finish in the top two of the group stages, which they are expected to, they will have to face one of the top two teams from Pool C, which comprises defending champions Germany, New Zealand and Spain.
Besides the title triumph in 2001, India’s other notable result in the Junior World Cup is a runners-up finish in the 1997 edition of the event in Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom. It was a tournament that featured one of India’s then most promising junior Rajiv Mishra, a man whom the hockey fraternity lost due to recurring injuries.
But this time around India are fielding one of the strongest teams in the event which features full internationals like captain Harjeet Singh, striker Mandeep Singh, defender and dragflicker Harmanpreet Singh and goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya.
The Harendra Singh-coached side is also approaching the World Cup on the back of a strong performance in a four-nation invitational tournament in Valencia in October, where they defeated a strong field comprising Germany, Belgium and hosts Spain to emerge victorious.
Defender and drag-flick specialist Varun Kumar and promising striker Armaan Qureishi were in good
scoring form for India, with both chipping in with goals in the 5-2 win over Germany in the title clash.
India are also regarded as one of the most experienced and balanced team in the World Cup with most of the players having plied their trade with the best of world hockey in the last three editions of the Hockey India League. Senior team’s chief coach Roelant Oltmans, who is assisting Harendra in preparing the colts for the World Cup is also confident of a good show.
“We have a balanced team and that is our strength. We have more experience than others because of playing in HIL. We have performed well in the last two years and we also have key players in every line,” the legendary Dutchman pointed out.
Consistency is something which the Indians will aim for in the World Cup, often regarded as a tournament which is full of surprises and unpredictable.
After Canada, India will play England on December 10 before facing South Africa in their last pool fixture on December 12.
Goalkeepers look to Sreejesh for tips
Regarded as one of the best hockey custodians in the world, PR Sreejesh will take charge as goalkeeping mentor of the India Under-21 side from on Thursday as the home team begins its quest for the Junior World Cup title.
Captain of the senior national men s team, Sreejesh will take charge of the role from South African Dave Staniforth, who was roped in by Hockey India to work with the junior goalkeepers for a short three-week period keeping in mind the World Cup.
Staniforth is set to leave for his home nation on Thursday. “I have worked with the junior keepers in Bangalore camp for sometime before break. rom on Thursday onwards I will be in charge of the goalkeeping aspect,” Sreejesh said.