Sports Reporter

SONEPAT: As a bunch of 26 youngsters break sweat in the sweltering heat of June, coach Ajay Kumar Bansal rues the fact that the main purpose of the first leg of the camp for the forthcoming junior Asia Cup hockey tournament in Hyderabad has been defeated due to the cancellation of the trip to Poland for a four-nation tournament.

“The trip to Poland would have provided us an excellent opportunity to have match practice before the junior Asia Cup. Otherwise the camp was good,” Bansal told The Hindu as the camp concluded here on Saturday. India’s withdrawal from the Poland tournament was shrouded in controversy as, even after the suspension of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the team was reportedly withdrawn by the federation.

Bansal said some engagements with a few domestic sides could make up for the lack of match practice ahead of the junior Asia Cup starting on July 6.

Reckoning India as the favourite for the under-21 meet, Bansal said the juniors had been steadily improving and their recent good showing should stand them in good stead in the crucial tournament from which the top three sides would qualify for the junior World Cup next year.

“There is no doubt that we are the favourites. We are the defending champion and now for the last one year, the team has been doing well,” he said. The coach also pointed out the home advantage.

Bansal, who guided the Indian senior team, with many of the junior players in its ranks, to the silver medal in the recent Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, said that in an eight-nation tournament in Germany in August last year, the junior team had topped the pool before being beaten in the semifinals.

In Malaysia in January this year, the team finished runner-up in an eight-nation tournament.

India has been grouped with Malaysia, China, Singapore and Japan, while Pakistan, Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh and Oman are in the other group in the Junior Asia Cup.

Main challenge

Bansal said Pakistan would be the main challenge if the home team wanted to retain the title. He asserted that India was sound in all the departments of the game.

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