World League: Testing time for India

India were the first team to qualify for the Rio Olympics by winning the Asian Games in December last. And as they open their campaign in the Hockey World League Finals, against Argentina on November 27, India, for the first time in a decade, will be playing as one of the top six in the world.

Roelant Oltmans (far right), the High Performance Director of Indian hockey and the chief coach of the Indian team puts his players through their paces at the National camp at the SAI South Centre in Bengaluru.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Australian captain Mark Knowles (left) fights for possession with Chandanda Thimmaiah of India during a Hero Hockey World League match at the National Stadium in New Delhi in January last year.   -  R. V. Moorthy

To reach the pinnacle of any sport is tough; to stay there is tougher. To crawl your way back after plumbing the depths in the international sporting arena, even as the rest of the world moves ahead at a fast clip, is the toughest. The Hockey World League Finals, to be held in Raipur from November 27 to December 6, will be a stern test for India, and will determine whether their recent surge in performance and rankings is in fact a gradual return to the glory days of yore. The tournament will also provide the roadmap the hosts and the rest of the teams in the world are likely to follow until the 2016 Rio Olympics.

 

Since August 11, 2012, when Indian hockey suffered one of its lowest points by finishing last in the London Olympics, up to now, India have come a long way. They were the first team to qualify for the Rio Olympics by winning the Asian Games in December last. And as they open their campaign in the HWL Finals against Argentina on November 27, India, for the first time in a decade, will be playing as one of the top six in the world.

The going will not be easy though for India. With the top eight teams in the world, barring New Zealand, participating and just eight months to go for Rio, this would be the last major competition for most teams. As such, it would also be the last opportunity for every coach and player to assess the opposition and chalk out their preparations for the coming months.

Given the vast difference between the top three teams in the world and the rest, the favourites pick themselves. The World champions, top-ranked Australia, remain at the forefront as they have been for more than a decade.

The most consistently successful team, who have been amongst the top-four for almost 20 years, are also the most attacking, and that is what makes them exciting and dangerous. A 6-1 win against The Netherlands in the World Cup was one of Australia’s most dominating performances in recent times. Despite coach Ric Charlesworth bidding adieu to the profession — Graham Reid has taken over as the coach of the team — the Aussie juggernaut hasn’t stopped rolling.

Midfielder Eddie Ockenden, veteran Jamie Dwyer and defender Mark Knowles, youngster Blake Govers and his elder brother Kieran would be looking to help Australia finish better than the fourth place they achieved in the previous edition. The team though would be missing the burly defender and penalty corner expert, Chris Ciriello, as part of the coach’s rotation policy in the Olympic year.

The Netherlands are the other favourites who come into the tournament on the back of a crushing 6-1 victory against Germany in the European Championships.

The nine-time Pan American champions, Argentina, are the dark horse in the tournament. Ranked No. 5 in the world, they are always a threat in international competitions.

Having finished a remarkable third in the World Cup, ahead of more fancied opponents such as Germany and Great Britain, the Los Leones include veteran captain Matias Parades, creative genius Lucas Vila, striker Manuel Brunet and defender and penalty corner expert Gonzalo Peillat, and are on a roll.

The one team that would be feeling uneasy would be Germany. They have the manpower to go all the way, including players of the calibre of Tobias Hauke and Moritz Furste — both former FIH Player of the Year — and attackers Christopher Ruhr and Florian Fuchs — both FIH Young Player of the Year winners.

 

But the Olympic champions suffered a major setback recently when coach Markus Weise, considered the brain behind Germany’s successes and the man who led them to glory at both the 2008 and 2012 Games, suddenly quit to move on to football. Junior coach Valentin Altenburg has taken charge of the team and, at 34, is only three years older than captain and talismanic midfielder Furste.

Altenburg has a good knowledge of Indian players, having coached Dabang Mumbai in the Hockey India League. The HWL Finals will also be a crucial test of Altenburg’s skills. The last time Germany came to India, they went back with the Champions Trophy. Furste would hope to win the HWL Finals in India too.

For the hosts, though, it is time to enter the homestretch leading to the Olympics. A series of changes in the coaching staff in the last one year, off-field controversies surrounding key players such as Gurbaj Singh, and Sardar Singh’s dip in form meant the team had more than just the game on their mind in earlier tournaments, including the semi-finals of the HWL. It is to the players’ credit that they managed to overcome the distractions. A three-Test series against world champions Australia could not have been timed better.

For coach Roelant Oltmans, the tournament would help decide the core members of the Indian team for the Olympics.

While players such as Sardar, defender V. R. Raghunath, goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh and Manpreet Singh select themselves, for the others, the tournament would provide the stage to prove their worth.

The other teams in the fray, Barry Middleton-led Great Britain and World No. 7 Belgium, have the potential to disrupt the plans of the best of teams, while Canada (ranked No. 14) are the only team out of the top-10 in the competition. A perennial thorn in the side of higher-ranked teams and punching above their weight in multi-nation tournaments, Canada would be hoping to continue their build-up for what would be only their seventh Olympic outing.

There are ranking points at stake and an automatic qualification for the winners for the Champions Trophy next year. But for most teams, this tournament would be their last chance to test their best against the rest. As such, the first-ever international event in Raipur, at the brand-new stadium, is all set to be an exciting affair for the public.

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THE GROUPINGS

(World rankings in parenthesis)

Pool A: Australia (1), Belgium (7), Canada (14), Great Britain (4).

Pool B: Argentina (5), India (6), Germany (3), The Netherlands (2).