Will India be in the reckoning?

S. SUBRAMANIUM

With a blend of experience and youth, the Indian team for London could not have been better, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Michael Nobbs is on a mission. His target: a spot in the top six. The assessment of India’s coach is realistic. But one cannot miss the paradox of a country with eight hockey gold medals, apart from a silver and two bronze, aiming to be in the elite six.

A marginal improvement has come about after Nobbs assumed charge of the Indian team. Encouraging results, including the win in the Olympic qualifiers, contribute to a sense of optimism. But the nation wants a podium finish.

A blend of the old and new, the Indian team for London could not have been better. All that needs to be done is to weld the resources at its disposal well. But that is easily said than done. More than once, Nobbs was angry with players not following instructions. A speck of disharmony can produce disastrous results.

Pitted in Pool B along with the defending champion, Germany, and former gold medallist, the Netherlands, India faces a formidable challenge. New Zealand, Korea and Belgium, the other three in the group, can be difficult as well.

If India visualises a spot anywhere near the top four then it must strive to garner full points against Korea, Belgium and New Zealand. India’s recent record against the Kiwis is dismal. Matches with Korea and Belgium have been close but the outcome has been unpredictable.

India’s collective skill component engenders hope. The goalkeepers, Chetri — he also leads the team — and Sreejesh, have been subjected to rigorous tests in competitions.

A lot rests on Sandeep Singh for scoring off penalty corners. He is among the best in the business. But top teams concede very few penalty corners to give Sandeep that scope. Raghunath is an apt foil. But neither of them is firm in tackling and intercepting. So is the case with Ignace Tirkey, a midfielder-turned defender.

The combination of Sardar Singh and Gurbaj Singh in the midfield with Manpreet and Birendra Lakra is the best buffer zone. Sardar has built a reputation for his competence as does Gurbaj. Cohesion in this area is vital.

On paper the attack looks strong. But recent results show the team’s woeful inadequacy in finishing. No team can afford to fritter away even half a chance. Unless Shivendra, Tushar, Sunil and Chandi are swift and sharp, the outcome can be devastating.

Germany is the favourite. Led by the seasoned Maximilian Mueller, it consists of remarkably endowed strikers in the Zeller brothers, Christopher and Philipp, apart from the consistent Matthias Witthaus. The team is guided by the renowned coach, Marcus Weiss.

The Dutch, winners of back-to-back gold in 1996 and 2000, are on the comeback trail under its strong coach, Peter van Ass. No. 3 in the world rankings, the Netherlands faces India in the opening match.

While many are wondering why a veteran like Taeke Taekema has been sidelined, the coach seems to rely on the experience of Teun de Nooijer and Floris Evers, the captain, besides the penalty corner specialist Roderick Wusthoff.

None in the competition can take New Zealand for granted. Under coach Shan McLeod, the Kiwis have made exemplary strides as their victory in the recent Aslan Shah Trophy showed.

Dean Couzins heads the pack that has stars such as Andy Howard, Simon Child and Pat Burrows. Don’t be surprised if the Kiwis get on the podium, or even win the gold.

The Aussie coach, Colin Batch, has worked wonders with Belgium which triumphed in the Champions Challenge and put up a heart-warming show in the European Cup. It is difficult to predict anything about Korea given its lacklustre performances in recent competitions, including the Asian Games.

The consensus is that Australia, the World Cup champion, cannot be denied the gold. Ric Charlesworth and his team, led by the versatile Jamie Dwyer, are all keyed up to regain the gold last won in 2004 to justify its world No. 1 ranking.

Indisputably, the Aussies have to contend with two European outfits — Great Britain and Spain — in Pool A. With home advantage, Britain may be a difficult customer even granting the fact that it does have a few chinks in its defence.

Barry Middleton takes the captain’s mantle. Coach Jason Lee has a wealth of class in all-rounders Ashley Jackson, Matt Daly and Richard Smith. With the gold won in Seoul in 1988 still glittering, Britain is one for the podium, if not gold.

Spain, under Shanti Freixa, is back in the reckoning. Following its showing in the Champions Trophy in Auckland, Spain is one of the strong contenders. Spain was a bronze medallist in Beijing.

The pathetic state of Pakistan was reflected in the team’s last-place finish at the Azlan Shah tournament. But the team, possessing a handful of youngsters under the veteran Sohail Abbas, is no pushover.

So is Argentina whose unpredictability is well documented. Mathias Vila heads the team coached by Pablo Lombi.

The third qualifier in the fray (apart from India and Korea), South Africa, needs a big chunk of luck and pluck to make its presence felt in the competition.

Debating the outcome is an entertaining pastime but it is, undeniably, a huge guessing game.