Test before the tussle
For a country in which cricket has been the most popular, most covered and most profitable sport for decades, getting behind the national hockey team is something of a rarity. This, despite hockey being a fast-paced, wholly engaging sport that when played in India has attracted crowds - the 2010 Men’s Hockey World Cup and more recently the Hero Hockey India League saw near capacity crowds at various centres. Ahead of the Indian men’s hockey team’s Hockey World League semi-final campaign to be played in Antwerp, Belgium from June 20 to July 15, the host broadcaster, Star Sports, has released a compelling TV advertisement aimed at garnering the public’s support for the national team.
The ad features leading players such as Sardar Singh, the captain, Sreejesh Raveendran and Birendra Lakra, as well as chief coach Paul Van Ass telling a gathered Indian media contingent that the hockey team is now performing better than even in recent times but does not get the support of either the public or the media. Former Indian hockey captain and CEO, Olympic Gold Quest Viren Rasquinha has said, “The support of the fans can be a massive lift to the hockey team. From my own experience, it gives you the strength to go on and fight in a crucial match when your lungs are bursting and when your legs are almost giving up on you.”
A final four position at the tournament will help teams qualify for the Hockey World League Final to be played in India in November-December.
Any team ending in the final three will be aided in qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics, for which India have already secured their berth by winning a gold at last year’s Asian Games.
Zealous hockey heroes
India have been placed in Pool A with Australia, France, Pakistan and Poland and will start their campaign against France on June 20. On team’s winning prospects, India’s star campaigner Ramandeep Singh has said, “I am witnessing a new energy in the team in the recent past. We now look at challenges in a different manner, challenges we feel we can overcome easily. This I will credit to our recent performance plus the new skills we are inculcating in our game. These days we are working on our finishing once we enter the opponents D. The aim is to put the ball across the goal line and for which we are working on many variations between ourselves. The idea is, we should react immediately without wasting time”.
Speaking on chief coach Paul van Ass, he was also quoted as saying, “He is working on the team keeping the all important RIO Olympics. He is using the immediate tournaments to understand and work on the team accordingly in the next one year. He is very futuristic in his approach and this is creating a very positive and competitive scenario within all of us.”
While, team’s fullback Rupinder Pal Singh said the side will look to plug the gaps in their defence in the tournament. “The defence in this tournament intends to come out strong. We are working on closing the space which will make things tough for the opponents,” Rupinder said ahead of the event in Antwerp, Belgium. “We are now realising that, earlier there were gaps which helped the opposition to score against us. This time around we have particularly worked on this area, now waiting to start putting this learning into play.” Speaking on the new strategies that the team is working on, he said, “I am confident with the strategies that the team is working on and it will yield positive results for the team. Adapting to changes do not happen overnight but I am sure we will get into the groove soon and start delivering as per plan”.
Hockey India (HI) also had presented the players of <g data-gr-id="105">both-men’s</g> and women’s- teams with caps, which has their own individual unique number inscribed on it that will stay with them for lifelong. The numbers given to players are based on each player representing HI since the national federation’s inception in 2009.
While Gurbaj was the 13th player to have made it to the Indian men’s team so No. 13 was being given to him. Similarly Sardar Singh and Ritu Rani, being the captains of the present men and women teams, were bestowed with No. 1 as their Unique Cap Number. Speaking on this initiative, HI president Narinder Batra was quoted saying as, “The idea behind this initiative of giving a unique number to each player was done keeping in mind that players across the world are very attached to their jersey numbers. Hence, we thought to give a permanent number to each player and it will stay with them for lifelong.”
Goalkeeper and vice-captain of the team, Sreejesh is also hopeful of a better show, “The team in the last few many weeks has worked on various combinations and strategies keeping in mind the important tournaments that are lined up in the next 14 months,” Sreejesh was quoted as saying in a statement from Hockey India. “The new way of attacking with 10 and defending with 10 gives me extra confidence. Now I feel my fort has been strengthened. This will give us that extra edge and I am hoping that this will help put the pressure (on the opponents) and also allow us to score from half opportunities,” he said.
Sreejesh, who is also the vice-captain of the side, said he was eagerly waiting for the much-anticipated clash against arch-rivals Pakistan on June 26.
Indian eves aiming high
The Indian women’s hockey team has also reached the venue and sweating hard to perform well in <g data-gr-id="101">Antewrp</g>, Belgium. India is placed in Pool B with Australia, New Zealand, Belgium and Poland and will be playing their opening match against Belgium on June 20.
The 18-member squad, led by Ritu Rani, is aiming high and has been practicing meticulously under the headship of their newly appointed Chief Coach Mathias Ahrens. Speaking just before the departure, Ritu had said, “This tournament is extremely important for us.”
“Clinching the title of the FIH Hockey World League Round 2 has boosted the team’s confidence and we hope to perform and beat the teams ahead of us on the FIH ranking which will help us book the <g data-gr-id="112">all important</g> place in the 2016 Rio Olympics. ”We have worked on our penalty corner conversions and we are looking at a positive result at the end of the tournament.” Commenting on the team’s preparations, Ahrens said he is confident of good results.
“While we have worked on various strategies, the goalkeepers on their end have been practicing on their reaction time. ”That I think will be the key as they have to ensure that they do not give away easy goals. The team realizes that the tournament is very important that they are leaving nothing to chance,” he said. The Hockey World League Semi-Final will feature 10 teams divided in two pools. They will be seen fighting to finish in top three to qualify for the league final.
The league semi-final is scheduled from June 2–July 5. India will be seen clashing against France at 09:30 pm IST in their opening match of the tournament on 20 June 2015. The matches will be telecast LIVE on Star Sports.
"Under the new training structure, the players are being trained on different positions. It has been a learning period, like man-to-man marking. We have to adjust to new structure,” Birender Lakra, who was recently named as player of the year.
"The support of the fans can be a massive lift to the team. It gives you the strength to go on and fight in a crucial match when your lungs are bursting and when your legs are almost giving up on you,” Viren Rasquinha, Former India captain, CEO of Olympic Gold Quest.
"Finishing is like defence. We have to make sure that we have a fair chance and that’s a team effort. You can train for that but biggest part is execution. That’s a mental aspect. Of course we are working on that. you have to grab tiny chances that can make a big difference,” Paul Van Ass, chief coach.
“The new way of attacking with 10 and defending with 10 gives me extra confidence. Now I feel my fort has been strengthened. This will give us that extra edge and I am hoping that this will help put the pressure (on the opponents) and also allow us to score from half opportunities,” Sreejesh, vice-captain and goalkeeper.
"Injuries are there but we want to try new players. The replacement players are doing well. But still there are areas we need to work on. Fitness is there but we have to use our mind during those 60 minutes. We will apply (new methods) in this tournament,” Sardar Singh, captain.