It’s no child’s play

There’s often a huge gap between the junior and senior levels in international sports. At the moment, 11 of the 18 players from India’s junior World Cup-winning squad are part of the senior core group. Five of them have represented India already and one is an Olympian. The rest are in uncertain zone, trying to balance their realistic efforts at landing a secure job with their dream of playing for the country.

It isn’t fair to throw juniors into the deep end of the cut-throat international circuit and expect them to come out winners from the word go. What would be better, though, is to keep them on the radar, follow their progress and give them space and time to mature into hardened sports professionals. By that benchmark, coach Harendra Singh (centre) did an outstanding job with his wards.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

A little over six months back, the city of Lucknow was witness to hockey history. A bunch of 21-year-old players lifted the Junior World Cup on home soil in front of maddening thousands and became heroes overnight.

On June 25, one of those hobbled out of the turf with a twisted knee, fearing the worst in terms of injury and an uncertain future. There were no crowds. With the help of a makeshift stretcher his team-mates carried him out, as a few curious eyes seemed more interested in his hairdo. The player was Parvinder Singh, turning out for his employer Punjab & Sind Bank, and the occasion was the final of the National Championships.

If ever there was any doubt about the huge gap between the junior and senior levels in international sports, Parvinder would be a perfect example. At the time when he was struggling to come to terms with his injury and unsure of his future, five of his team-mates from the junior World Cup were struggling to live up to their reputations in London as India went down to lowly but dangerous Canada 3-2 to finish sixth in the 10-team Hockey World League Semifinals.

It isn’t fair to throw juniors into the deep end of the cut-throat international circuit and expect them to come out winners from the word go. What would be better, though, is to keep them on the radar, follow their progress and give them space and time to mature into thorough professionals.

By that benchmark, coach Harendra Singh did an outstanding job with his wards. Results not withstanding, it is the level of calmness and the never-say-die attitude that this bunch brings to any game it plays that is refreshing. If it was Sumit who impressed with his diving to tackle and repossess the ball in London, Nilakanta Sharma managed to weave past opponents and find gaps to help Railways retain the National title in Lucknow for the third year in a row.

At the same time, Mandeep Singh struggled with his shots in London against opponents like Malaysia while Parvinder, along with others like Armaan Qureshi, was unable to do much to lift his side even in the domestic tournament. It’s a huge gap and not everyone can make the cut. At the moment, 11 of the 18 from that bunch are part of the senior core group. Five of them have represented India already and one is an Olympian. The rest are in uncertain zone, trying to balance their realistic efforts at landing a secure job with their dream of playing for the country. It’s a tough act.

More than anything else, though, it was the Hockey India League that helped some of these players further their causes. The HIL also threw up some players not part of the JWC, but impressive nonetheless and caught the eye of coach Roelant Oltmans. The likes of Suraj Kerkera, Satbir Singh, Lalit Upadhyay and Affan Yousuf made the grade via the HIL.

“The selection process for the core probables was based on the players’ performances in the year 2016 as well as the 2017 HIL. This is an important year for Indian hockey and its performances will be vital in bringing us fresh perspective towards building our game further as we move into the year of the World Cup in 2018. I believe the players will be mentally and physically ready for a new challenge,” Oltmans had said while short-listing the players.

Half of 2017 is over, including two important tournaments — the Azlan Shah Cup and the Hockey World League Semifinals/Round 3 — with contrasting and mixed results.

Those currently not in Oltmans scheme of things have the chance to break into the ranks through the Development side, a group of 33 players that acts as a feeder to the senior team and provides an opportunity to the discards.

But it wouldn’t be easy. The last time India won the hockey junior World Cup, half the side graduated to the senior team and, for a while, continued with its golden run at that level as well. For various reasons, however, most from that batch remained under-achievers on the global stage.

The Indian hockey system has changed since then and one would hope that the current lot would not be allowed to fall off the grid, again.

The 18: Where are they now?

Vikas Dahiya: Part of Indian team in London, brought off some impressive saves but let in some soft ones too. Still Inconsistent and needs to learn more.

Harmanpreet Singh: Part of Indian team in London, was unable to live up to his reputation as one of the best drag-flickers in the world with more misses than hits. He was good in defence, though.

Harjeet Singh: Part of Indian team in London. Playing his maiden world level tournament at the senior level, out of his usual position of centre-half, he struggled to cope with the change early on.

Sumit: Part of Indian team in London, came in as replacement for S. K. Uthappa after the latter had to leave due to family reasons. He impressed with his game sense, hard work and positioning.

Mandeep Singh: Part of Indian team in London, struggled to score or beat defenders, and was guilty of often fumbling with the ball. Needs to be guided carefully.

Manpreet Jr: Won the National Championships with the Railways team, part of the senior core group.

Ajit Kumar Pandey: Won the National Championships with the Railways team, good with his runs and passing, but out of senior core group. He is hoping to break in through the development side.

Nilakanta Sharma: Won the National Championships with the Railways team, part of the senior core group.

Vikramjit Singh: Finished runner-up at the National Championships with PSB team, but is out of senior core group and will be hoping to break in through the development side.

Simranjit Singh: Won the National Championships with the Railways team, part of the senior core group.

Parvinder Singh: Finished runner-up at the National Championships with PSB team, out of senior core group. He will be hoping to break in through the development side, but his injury in the final has now made his future uncertain.

Gurinder Singh: Finished runner-up at the National Championships with PSB team, part of the senior core group.

Santa Singh: Finished runner-up at the National Championships with PSB team, out of senior core group, hoping to break in through the development side.

Gurjant Singh: Finished third at the National Championships with the Punjab team, part of the senior core group.

Arman Qureshi: Part of the Air India team at the National Championships, but had a poor run in the tournament and still not completely match fit after his injury in the HIL. He is also out of the senior core group, and is hoping to break in through the development side.

Dipsan Tirkey: Won the B Division of the National Championships with Petroleum Sports Promotion Board, part of the senior core group.

Varun Kumar: Won the B Division of the National Championships with Petroleum Sports Promotion Board, but is out of the senior core group, and is hoping to break in through the development side.

Krishan Pathak: Played in the B Division of the National Championships with Punjab National Bank, out of the senior core group.