HIL: UP Wizards host champions Ranchi Rays

Uttar Pradesh Wizards would be hoping to raise the temperatures on the field, when they take on defending champions Ranchi Rays on Friday.

Uttar Pradesh Wizards celebrating after their last minute victory over Kalinga Lancers in Hockey India League   -  Special Arrangement

Winter has finally set in north India and Uttar Pradesh Wizards, coming in for their home games here after a dramatic last-second victory in their opening encounter, would be hoping to raise the temperatures on the field, when they take on defending champions Ranchi Rays on Friday.

The 8-6 win against Kalinga Lancers in balmy Bhubaneswar was the perfect start for the fourth edition of the Hockey India League and UP would be looking to consolidate their lead at the top of the table. Defending champions Ranchi, on the other hand, would be targeting their first win in the competition after going down 0-2 against Jaypee Punjab Warriors in Chandigarh.

The Guru Gobind Singh Sports College has seen a lot of activity in preparation for the HIL including a new blue turf and installation of long-delayed floodlights. In many ways, it would be an interesting battle between teams that have quite a lot in common. UP has V. R. Raghunath as their skipper, one of the best drag-flickers in the world but someone who missed a penalty stroke against Kalinga. His counterpart in Ranchi is another top drag-flicker, Ashley Jackson, who also has the company of Sandeep Singh to boot, but together could not make their chances count.

The UP goal is manned by P. R. Sreejesh and his opposite number is Tyler Lovell, who does the job ably for Australia. Both brought off some spectacular saves in their respective matches even though the final results were different.

The strength of both sides is in their defence, though Ranchi props it up with an equally talented midfield while the middle is the weakest area for UP, which has a world-class attack led by German Tobias Hauke and Australian Jamie Dwyer. The latter, though, would be joining the team only late on Thursday and is unsure of starting the game.

Both the teams have shown contradictory approaches early this season. This is party due to the newly introduced two-for-one scoring rule for field goals. Jackson had indicated that the rule would make teams defensive while Raghunath had hoped it would make the forwards attack and take more risks. While UP, coached by India strategic coach Roger van Gent, displayed an aggressive brand of play against Kalinga, Ranchi was defensive all through their match.

“Yes defence is our strength but it's not like we stayed back all the time the number of chances we created inside the striking circle was a positive aspect and we are looking to score more,” said Ranchi coach Harendra Singh.

For UP, Raghunath was unconcerned about the difference in temperature. “We practiced here for a week before the HIL started so we are now used to it. Also, all of us are professionals and used to playing in variable weather all the year long, so yes, even though the temperature difference is great, it doesn't affect us. We are only looking at maintaining the winning momentum,” he said.