PREVIEW: India’s hockey record in the Olympics makes for wonderful reading, but the same cannot be said of their showings at the Hockey World Cup. Their only time atop the podium at the World Cup came in 1975 when Ajit Pal Singh and his men won a hard-fought final against arch-rivals Pakistan. Given that the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar is hosting the 2018 Hockey World Cup, Indian fans will at least be quietly optimistic about their chances of a podium finish.
India hockey legend Dhanraj Pillay has come out in support of former captain and midfielder Sardar Singh, saying he could have been a vital cog for India in the upcoming Hockey World Cup.
The 32-year-old midfielder recently announced his retirement and later blamed former coach Sjoerd Marijne and high performance director David John for prompting him to make the decision.
“If Dhanraj can play an Olympics at 37, why can’t Sardar play a World Cup at 32,” said Pillay, talking to News18 Sports. “I feel his experience in the midfield could have been crucial. Now you just have to play four quarters of 15 minutes each. He could have easily played 8-9 minutes each quarter.
"He was also among the fittest members in the team. It’s also sad to see Rupinderpal Singh and SV Sunil missing, but you can’t do anything with injuries. These players could have played an important role for us, but now we need to look forward to whatever players we have. We need to give them our full backing,” added Pillay.
With world ranked fifth India at the other end in their first match, South Africa have a tough task at hand but Hopkins is looking at the positives.
"Every game at the World Cup is a big match. You try to start the tournament as well as you can. It's exciting that we are playing our first match against the host nation. We will go into the game fairly confident. We feel we have the squad, skill set and tactics to play really good hockey and get results from the match," he said.
"I think the pressure is on both sides. Being the host nation there is more pressure on India than us. We will just go out there and play the brand of hockey that is successful for us."
Khoon pasina hoga ek,— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) November 28, 2018
Jeetney ke liye lagani hogi jaan,
Har mukkam karna hoga fateh,
Takk pe hai desh ka samman!
Kadey faisley lene honge kai,
Thode galat, zyaadatar sahi,
Har kahani ke parey, ek ehsas hai baki,
Ab hoga harr hindustani ka #DilHockey!#IndiaKaGame #HWC2018 pic.twitter.com/HQxJq8H7jr
Not amongst the favourites to lift the trophy, South Africa players have paid from their own pockets to just be a part of the men's hockey World Cup beginning here on Wednesday.
World number 15 South Africa coach Mark Hopkins said the biggest hurdle for the growth of the game in South Africa is "funding".
"The more hockey South Africa plays the better it is. But our challenge is to get the funding in place to allow us to compete in as many Test matches we possibly can," Hopkins told PTI on the eve of his side's opener against hosts India.
"We are coming into the World Cup with players needing to pay from their own pocket. They paid to be part of the camps. Our challenge is to get the funding in place. We are lucky to have a few sponsors but the sponsorships we have don't really cover the budget of the World Cup
Manpreet Singh led-side is ranked fifth in the world, have been among the most improved sides in the recent years and believe that they can go the distance. But the skipper has identified a few areas that team needs to work on, to meet their own expectations.
"Conversion through penalty corners has to be the area that we need to work on," Manpreet Singh told News18 Sports.
"Asian Champions Trophy was one occasion where we really did well. Overall Harmanpreet Singh did really well in that area. We have three drag-flickers at the moment who are putting in a lot of effort in training. We have to see how it goes finally. I think you'll see good variations from our drag-flickers this time around."
Indian hockey team coach Harendra Singh has come up with innovative methods of keeping his squad engaged in the past, be it to ensure that they follow what he says or to prepare them for whatever they might encounter in a match situation.
After forcing the players who turned up late to practice sessions during the Asian Games earlier this year to wear a rooster hat, Singh has now started the practice of making his squad train while a huge loudspeaker blares in their ears.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Now ranked fifth in the world, Indians would be eager to recreate the magic by at least reaching the semi-finals. But the road ahead won’t be easy. Besides having to go up against powerhouses like two-time and defending champions Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Olympic champions Argentina and a resurgent Belgium, India will fight both home fan expectations and history.
The last time India played a World Cup at home, in 2010 in New Delhi they finished a lowly eighth and going by records, the host nation has never fared well in the tournament. Coach Harendra Singh guided the junior Indian team to the World Cup title in Lucknow two years ago and will be hopeful of achieving something similar this time around. His credentials were questions after India failed to defend their Asian Games title in Jakarta earlier this year and another failure in this tournament will see his job under the scanner once again.
The Indian team for the World Cup is a mixture of youth and experience with seven of the 18 featuring in the last World Cup. The squad also has youthful exuberance in 19-year-old striker Dilpreet Singh and debutant Hardik Singh. But two notable absentees from the squad are dragflicker Rupinder Pal Singh, who has been dropped and striker SV Sunil, who is unfit.
Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Krishna Bahadur Pathak.
Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra, Varun Kumar, Kothajit Singh Khadangbam, Surender Kumar, Amit Rohidas.
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh (capt), Chinglensana Singh Kangujam (vice-capt), Nilakanta Sharma, Hardik Singh, Sumit.
Forwards: Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Simranjeet Singh.
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