A relatively new-look India would be gunning for glory on home turf under new coach Terry Walsh in the inaugural Hero Hockey World League Final where the team will open their campaign against higher-ranked England at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, in New Delhi on Friday.
The tournament will provide India a perfect build up for the World Cup to be held later this year at The Hague, Netherlands. With the world's top seven teams in fray here, India could not have asked for better preparation for the quadrennial event. India should consider themselves lucky to be one of the participating teams in the HWL Final. Having failed to qualify directly, India managed a place in the event by the virtue of being the host. India are also slated to host the prestigious Champions Trophy later this year and it is now high time the past masters of the game take advantage of these big-ticket opportunities.
The tournament will provide the Sardar Singh-led side an opportunity to prove to the world that Indian hockey is on course to regaining its past glory. Apart from the silver medal in the Asia Cup, India didn't have anything major to show in 2013. The Indians finished a disappointing sixth in the Hockey World League semi-finals in Rotterdam, but the tournament provides the eight-time Olympic champions a perfect stage to prove their detractors wrong. But for that, they will have to overpower formidable opponents such as Germany, Australia and Netherlands. India are placed in Pool A along side reigning Olympic champions and world number one Germany, world No. 4 England and seventh-ranked New Zealand. Pool B consists of Australia, Netherlands, Belgium and Argentina.
So, understandably it won't be a cake-walk for the Indians, who are ranked 10th in the world, and Walsh's boys will have to perform superbly if they desire to progress to the knockout stage. Having taken charge of the team only in November from compatriot Michael Nobbs, this tournament will be the first real test for Walsh and his support staff. Plagued by injuries to some key players, India will field a relatively new-look team. Forwards S V Sunil and Yuvraj Walmiki have made comebacks after sitting out for close to one year due to injuries and poor form. While Sunil came back into the team after recovering from the elbow injury he sustained before the Asia Cup in August, Walmiki made a return to the side after the FIH Champions Trophy in 2012. India's forward-line sports a fresh look as, apart from Sunil and Walmiki, the selectors have put faith in youngsters like Nikkin Thimmaiah, Mandeep Singh and Affan Yousuf. For Affan, who was vice-captain of the Sultan Johor Cup winning side but was later ignored for the Junior World Cup, it is a maiden call-up to the senior side.
Another rookie entry to the senior side is goalkeeper Harjot Singh, who replaced PT Rao. Experienced custodian P R Sreejesh has been entrusted with the responsibility to share Sardar's leadership responsibility. With Sardar at the helm, the Indian middle-field comprising SK Uthappa, Dharamvir Singh, Manpreet Singh, Chinglensana Singh and M B Aiyappa, sports a solid look.
India's backline has always been a problem and it remains to be seen how Birendra Lakra, Rupinderpal Singh, V R Raghunath, Kothajit Singh and Amit Rohidas live upto their jobs. But the most promising aspect of the team is the presence of three penalty-corner specialists. Raghunath, Rupinder and Rohidas will form a potent force when it comes to penalty corner conversions.
The Indians will be desperate to open their campaign on a winning note against England, before they square off against New Zealand on Friday and Netherlands on Sunday. But it won't be easy as England are no pushovers and their world ranking suggests their constant upward movement in world hockey.
India captain Sardar Singh, however, promised to spring some surprises in the tournament. "We have a young and talented team in transition. We need to do the basic things right. The biggest advantage that we have is that we have world's best coach in Terry Walsh. We have good mid-field and some very attacking players upfront. We need to tighten up our defence and then we will be in a position to defeat major teams in the world," Sardar has said.
England qualified for the HWL Finals by finishing third in the HWL semi-final in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. England, who finished fourth at the EuroHockey Nations, will be bolstered by the return of striker Ashley Jackson who will certainly add some teeth to their attacking force. Meanwhile, in other matches of the opening day, Australia will play Belgium, Netherlands will face Argentina and Germany will take on New Zealand.