With a busy year ahead in 2014 — there would be the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the Champions Trophy — Indian hockey could not have had a better start than the Hockey World League (HWL) Final that starts at the National Stadium here on Friday.
The grand finale of the two-year long competition would see India and the top seven teams in the world battle it out for the honour of being crowned its inaugural champion.
This would be the first outing for the national team after the Asia Cup in August last year and the players are expected to take some time getting into a rhythm, especially in the opening match against England.
“We last played here in 2010 and the result was not what we would have liked so hopefully this time it will be better,” said England coach Bobby Crutchley. England lost to India on penalties in the semifinals of the Commonwealth Games.
The format of the HWL, which ensures all eight teams would play the quarterfinals, may benefit India, traditionally a slow starter in competitions. Led by Sardar Singh in the midfield and accompanied by junior captain Manpreet Singh and Dharamvir Singh, the team’s strength would be in defence.
V.R. Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh would have to shoulder the bulk of responsibility at the back, more so given the inexperienced attack. The duo would also be in charge of penalty corners.
Except for S. V. Sunil, the rest of the forward line — Yuvraj Walmiki, Affan Yousuf, Nikkin Thimmaiah and Mandeep Singh — is yet to prove itself consistently.
The tournament would also be the first with new coach Terry Walsh in charge and it would be interesting to see what changes the Australian has made, given his insistence on developing the basics.
Several key members of the side played the junior World Cup recently and were guilty of mis-trapping and wrong passing.
India has nothing to lose and everything to gain from this tournament. Participating only by virtue of being the host, the team has no ranking points to gain.
The team has already qualified for the World Cup.
Playing against the world’s best teams would give it valuable match practice and help identify weaknesses ahead of a packed year.
The biggest concern for the team management would be the health of its players. Injuries ruled out five of its key players, four of them strikers, even before training began.
A day ahead of the competition, at least three more — Rupinderpal, Manpreet and Mandep — were struggling to recover from sore throat.
“Nothing serious but yes, we are not at optimum fitness. Hopefully everyone will be ready to go by the time the match starts,” said Sardar.
Interestingly, India last played England in its tournament opener at the Champions Trophy in 2012, winning 3-1. India reached the semifinals then and a similar result this time would be a great achievement for the host.
Friday’s matches: Australia v Belgium, The Netherlands v Argentina, Germany v New Zealand, and India v England (8 p.m.).