Friday, November 30, 2012

Would Champions Trophy trigger a turnaround in Indian hockey?

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The London Olympics was a truly forgettable moment for not just the Indian hockey team as well as for the many hockey fans, who would have found it extremely hard to stomach the fact that the blue shirts would finish with a wooden spoon – what a low point for a team which has won the Olympic gold the most times – 8 times for the statistically-minded.

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since that Olympics disaster. As on expected lines, the team was greeted with public backlash; players were lampooned and the already falling interest in the sport was only fast-forwarded.

For the first time in many years, the chief coach was not made the scapegoat – as is the case with Indian hockey, where a coach is dumped after every disappointing campaign in a major tournament. Michael Nobbs was spared the axe and here he is once again spearheading the team on another important assignment – the FIH Champions Trophy – where India is participating as a wild card invitee.

The team will take the turf under a new captain Sardar Singh, after the London Olympics captain Bharat Chetri along with several senior players like Sandeep Singh, Ignace Tirkey, Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandker were either dropped or rested (as we are made to believe).

Without a shadow of doubt, Sardar has a herculean task of getting the best out of his boys and pep up their morale, which took a real pounding at the London Olympics.

The Indian captain will be relying heavily on vice-captain Vokkaliga Raghunath to execute the penalty corner duties in an exemplary manner in the absence of a seasoned campaigner like Sandeep Singh. Young Rupinder Pal Singh is highly promising and would be expected to complement Raghunath in short corner execution. Expectations would also be high from young defender Harbir Singh, who would be keen to prove his worth on the big stage.

Indian defence was torn to shreds by the rival teams at the London Olympics, and all eyes will be on whether the team has really worked hard on plugging the loose holes in defence, as that will be the key in deciding how the team fares in the Champions Trophy.

A close look at India’s matches at the London Olympics would reveal how India paid a heavy price for silly defensive errors. A tight defence would play a big role in ensuring India stay competitive in the tournament as they would be up against some of the world’s top teams.

Goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and PT Rao along with the backline of Raghunah and Co must be alive to the situation all the time as any slight lapse in concentration can cost us dearly. The London Olympics is a striking example of that.

Talking of Sardar, he would be looking for support in the midfield, which cut a sorry figure at the last Olympics. The return of Kothajit Singh to the senior side should ease some of the pressure on Sardar as the Manipuri lad is a lively customer and can play second fiddle to Sardar, while nullifying the offensive designs of the opposition. He and Birender Lakra would have to work as a cohesive unit along with young turks Manpreet Singh and Gurmail Singh.

The Indian forwardline would be short on experience following the non-availability of Shivendra and Tushar, but very high on youth legs. Save for SV Sunil and Gurvinder Singh Chandi to some extent, the rest of the forwardline is replete with young faces. The likes of Sunil and Chandi would look for adequate support from the comeback lad Yuvraj Walmiki (who missed the Olympics because of a hamstring injury), Dharamvir Singh, Danish Mujtaba and SK Uthappa.

It remains to be seen how the likes of Akashdeep Singh and Nithin Thimmaiah respond to the big occasion – playing in a major tournament – after coming through the junior ranks. From India’s perspective, one hopes that both have a successful transition to the senior level and play a big part in India’s success story at the State Netball Hockey Centre in Melbourne (the venue for the premier tournament).

Chief coach Nobbs would hoping for a decent opening game for India, who lock horns with England on Saturday. May the Champions Trophy be the start button of India’s turnaround in world hockey!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Don’t write us off, says Indian hockey captain Sardar Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

He provides the bedrock around which the Indian hockey team revolves. A vital cog in the midfield department, Sardar Singh has gained the respect of all and sundry with his exemplary all-round skills.

The value of Sardar’s presence in the side can be best exemplified by the fact that chief coach Michael Nobbs did not substitute him even once during the entire London Olympics campaign, which also speaks volumes about his high fitness levels.

The wooden spoon finish at the London Olympics was the biggest low in Indian hockey. Three months later, the FIH Champions Trophy will be India’s first major tournament after the London Olympics disaster. And the blue shirts will be feeling the pressure when they launch their FIH Champions Trophy campaign on December 1.

“Of course, the boys will be under pressure to deliver as we did not do well at the London Olympics.  I still believe we did not really play bad hockey as the 12th position suggests,” Sardar said in an exclusive interview.

The 26-year-old playmaker revealed that the team has slogged hard to iron out their weakness and is determined to come out with a decent showing in the Champions Trophy. “We had a two-month break after the Olympics. We have worked really hard in the camp, trying to focus on areas such as man-to-man marking, trapping and ball release and finishing inside the striking circle. You should see a lot of improvement in these areas,” said Sardar, who is a DSP in Haryana Police.

Apart from the pressure to perform, Sardar would also have the added responsibility of leading the senior team. Ask the strapping medio and he is excited at the prospect. “I don’t really think captaincy will put me under any kind of pressure. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to. My job is to guide my team members. We have around 6-7 youngsters in the side and I would look to guide them in whatever way I can; even the senior players in the team would also have a role to play in guiding these young players,” he paints a realistic picture.
This is not the first time that Sardar is leading the senior team. He became the youngest Indian captain when he wore the captain armband at the 2008 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup Tournament. In fact, he is richer with that captaincy experience. “Obviously that captaincy stint will help. You keep learning all the time stuff like how to deal with senior players, how to deal with junior players,” he puts things in perspective.
Despite the all-round criticism of the team following its calamitous run at the London Olympics, the team grabbed the positive eyeballs for its improved fitness levels. Sardar credits the high fitness levels to trainer David John, who has stepped down after the Olympics. “David (John) did a superb job. Our fitness levels improved significantly. He would conduct different training sessions for goalkeepers, fullbacks, halfbacks and forwards. It’s sad that he did not want to extend his contract; we are going to miss him for sure,” he quipped.

Sardar, who earned 160 international caps for India and scored 20 goals, is looking forward to working with the team trainer Jason Conrath. “We need to not only maintain our high fitness levels but also further improve on it. We are excited about working with Jason (Conrath).”

A bottom-place finish at the Olympics might have diluted the ‘expectation’ element to some extent, but Sardar feels that the India team has the wherewithal to spring a few surprises. “Australia won the last Champions Trophy, does it mean that they would win it this around? I reckon any team can win on any given day. The same applies to us, if we play good hockey we can best any team on any given day. We would give our best shot. Don’t write us off,” Sardar sings an upbeat tone.

The team is missing experienced players like London Olympics captain Bharat Chetri, drag-flicker Sandeep Singh, fullback IgnaceTirkey, forwards Tushar Khandker and Shivendra Singh. Sardar exuded hope that they will soon stage a national team comeback. “They are all good players. They bring a lot of experience to the side. If they keep working hard at their game, I’m sure they will stage a comeback to the national side soon.”

The whole of India is talking about exciting 18-year-old Indian Oil drag-flicker Gurjinder Singh. So what is Sardar’s take on him? “Gurjinder is only 18; he is an exciting prospect for the future. He packs a lot of power in his drag-flicks but he has to work on his fitness as it is a key ingredient for any player to achieve success in modern hockey,” he says matter-of-factly.

Sardar likes to do his own personal training sessions apart from the regular team training sessions whenever he is at the national camp or on a national assignment. He unwinds from his hockey sessions by listening to Punjabi songs.” I’m a big fan of Babbu Mann and whenever I get time to unwind, I like to listen to his songs. It works as a stressbuster for me,” he guffaws.

At 26, he is the most eligible bachelor in the Indian hockey team. The coy lad tries his best to skirt any talk on this. “I have no marriage plans for now. May be in two years’ time I would think about it as I’m in love with hockey for now,” he remarked.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Meet India's first World Badminton Federation accredited woman umpire

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Vrushali Upadhye is in seventh heaven. No prizes for guessing why? The Pune-based seasoned badminton official has become India’s first World Badminton Federation (WBF) accredited umpire.

Understandably, Vrushali is gushing with joy. “I always wanted to make it big in badminton. I played the sport at the school level but could not pursue it as academics took the frontseat. I took to badminton umpiring and today, I can proudly say that I have realized my dream of securing WBF accreditation,” she said in an exclusive interview.

A science graduate from Maharashtra Education Society’s (MES) Abasaheb Garware College, Pune, Vrushali first took to badminton umpiring in the eighties and became a grade II umpire in 1986 before becoming a grade I umpire in 1993. “I started officiating in state-level tournaments after I became a grade II umpire. I grew in experience and was elevated to a grade I umpire, following which I began to travel all across the country to officiate in All-India tournaments,” the soft-spoken official quipped.  

Vrushali gradually climbed up the umpiring ladder and became the Asian Badminton Confederation (ABC) accredited umpire in 1993, which paved the way for her officiating stints in Asian countries. 

She later secured an ABC certification in 1998. “Before the ABC accreditation I was only officiating in India. Since 1993 I have improved my umpiring skills thanks to my umpiring assignments in international matches (Asian countries),” she says.

And 26 years as an official is a tribute to her tenacity and dedication. In fact, the WBF accreditation is the latest feather to her cap. “It feels great to be known as India’s first woman WBF accredited umpire. A lot of sweat and toil has gone into it,” she says.

Vrushali also talks about the challenges of being a badminton umpire. “First of all, you need strong concentration powers. Staying focused all the time is the key, also getting familiar with any changes in rules is crucial for which I have to keep track of the rule book,” she explains.

She officiates in minimum hundred matches annually. “As ABC rules stipulates we have to officiate in at least 100 matches a year. I officiate in around 70 matches on the international stage and the rest thirty for the domestic circuit,” Vrushali discloses.

Being the only Indian woman to be a WBF accredited umpire makes her happy but she wants to see more Indian women take up badminton umpiring. “I would love to see more Indian women take up badminton umpiring. Since the job involves intense travelling, most Indian women do not find it an ideal option,” she puts things in perspective.

Vrushali makes her debut as a WBF accredited umpire in the upcoming Syed Modi Memorial International Tournament beginning at Lucknow on December 17. “This tournament will occupy a special place in my memories as it will be my first assignment as a WBF accredited umpire. I’m really excited at the prospect of officiating in Lucknow.”

Irrespective of whether the pay packet for a badminton umpire is decent or not, Vrushali insists she is into umpiring only for the passion. “I took up umpiring not for money. Passion is one thing that drew me towards badminton umpiring,” she makes it abundantly clear.

Vrushali credits her umpiring exploits to her strong family support. “My husband runs a printing business and is very supportive of what I love the most. I also assist him in his business whenever I’m free from my umpiring assignments,” Vrushali signs off.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Runners-up finish augurs well for 2013 Junior World Cup” – Junior Hockey coach Baljit Singh Saini Interview

This piece was published on Sportskeeda

After the senior team’s disastrous wooden spoon finish at the 2012 London Olympics, the Indian junior men’s hockey team gave its die-hard fans plenty to rejoice about, turning in a creditable runners-up finish at the recently-concluded second Sultan of Johor Cup, held in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

Not many would have put their money on the Indians to go the distance or even trip at the final hurdle. Of course, there would be many disappointed fans as well given the fact that India lost in the final to a side they had beaten quite convincingly in the league phase. But let’s not forget that Germany are the reigning world junior champions, which itself should make our team’s performance praiseworthy.

But if one looks at the larger picture: preparing for the 2013 Junior World Cup to be held in India, then one must say that the Sultan of Johor Cup was a hugely rewarding experience for the team, in terms of knowing where the team stands on the world stage. Surely, the team’s resounding performance in Malaysia should also give the team management a fair idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are and accordingly chalk up their strategies ahead of the marquee event next year.

No wonder, national junior hockey coach Baljit Singh Saini is on cloud nine. “I’m proud of my boys. They dished out an excellent brand of hockey throughout the tournament. A runners-up finish augurs well for the team ahead of the 2013 Junior World Cup,” he told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

The 36-year-old former fullback and midfielder, who played in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as the 2000 Sydney Olympics, believes his side put up a brave show in the final and was unlucky to settle for a second-best finish. “We were the only unbeaten team going into the final. We played attacking, free-flowing hockey in the final but our inability to make the most of set-pieces cost us dearly,” he observed.

To buttress his point, Saini said, “Germany earned five penalty corners in the final tie and converted two of them, while we couldn’t convert any. According to me, that was the clinching difference between the two teams. It was a hard-fought contest.”

Saini, who took part in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup, feels that India’s performance in the final was better than they had put on display in their league game against the same opponents. “I would even say that India’s final game performance was much better than their performance against Germany in the league tie. Yes, the scoreline (India won 3-1 in the league, but lost 2-3 in the final) may not reflect that, but that’s how it is,” he puts things in perspective.

India finished fourth in the inaugural edition last year, losing 3-4 to South Korea and thus have significantly improved on that. So, what could have been the secret of the team’s impressive run in Johor Bahru? “It’s not just about playing good hockey for 70 minutes and employing the right strategies. A lot of hard work has gone in off the turf as well. We have watched many videos of the Pakistan and Malaysian junior teams. As for the Australian team, senior chief coach Michael Nobbs has given the boys some tips about how to play them. All the behind-the-scenes activities and attacking hockey have played a part in our team’s stellar performance,” he quipped.

There are always seeds of doubts about whether the top teams really fielded their full strength sides in the tournament, as many teams may not like to expose their strengths given the World Cup is only some months away. Saini brushed aside such thoughts. “I don’t think any team came with a second-string outfit. I have been regularly talking to coaches of Australia, Germany and other teams. We have breakfast together at the hotel in the morning. I was given to understand that all these teams have been practicing with the same bunch of boys for a year. Even we did not play our full strength side as well,” he remarked.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Interview: Feels great winning my maiden international crown, says shuttler Arundhati Pantawane

This piece was published on Sportskeeda

A maiden international singles title means a lot to any shuttler and it is no different for Arundhati Pantawane, who is experiencing a top-of-the-world feeling after recently annexing the Bahrain Open women’s singles crown.

The 23-year-old Nagpur girl dished out a resounding performance at the Bahrain Open, defeating fellow Indian Tanvi Lad in the summit clash. Arundhati also sprang a major surprise, upsetting top seed and world number 47 Yegit Neslihan of Turkey in the semifinals.

The Indian, who trains at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, jumped 38 places in the latest world badminton federation rankings to occupy the 109th position following her exploits at the Bahrain Open.

The year 2012 has been a bit of mixed bag for Arundhati as she skipped a number of tournaments on account of injuries. Last year, she had a phenomenal run, climbing 250 places to reach a career-high ranking of 51.

The shuttler was born into a sporting family; her father is an athletic coach while mother is an athlete. Her sister is a cricketer.

Arundhati spoke about her game and much more in an exclusive interview.


First of all, how do you think this maiden international singles title (the women’s singles crown at the Bahrain Open) is going to shape up your future progress?

It obviously feels great to win my maiden international women’s singles title. I’m sure this triumph in Bahrain is going to help me to do a lot better in future. I feel more confident now than before, both on and off the court.

When you decided to participate in the Bahrain Open, did you really think that you could go the distance (win the women’s singles title)?

I was actually confident of faring well in the tournament and winning the singles crown gave me a ‘high’ feeling, which will surely motivate me to turn in such title-winning performances on a consistent basis in future.

You beat Tanvi Lad in an all-India final in the Bahrain Open. How difficult it is to motivate when you know it’s an all-India clash?

Yeah, it’s always a tad difficult to motivate when it comes to an all-India clash at the international level because you don’t any coach to support you. I have played against Tanvi several times this year; she is a good player, who covers the court well but I was pretty confident of winning against her.

It has been a bit of an Indian party at the Bahrain Open. You and Sai Praneeth won the women’s and men’s singles titles while Rupesh Kumar/Sanave Thomas bagged the men’s doubles crown?

Indeed it was! The Indian shuttlers really stole the show. There was a lot of Indian support as there are lots of south Indian people leaving there.

Tell us a bit about your semifinal match where you upstaged top seed Yegit Neslihan of Turkey.

Yegit is a solid player. I had seen her play in the Polish Open this year, she was in great form in that tournament. I just thought of playing my natural game, Yegit tried to engage me in long rallies which is her forte. I altered my strategy and started attacking more and it worked as I started winning points and subsequently the match. It was a well contested match.

How much self-confidence you have gained by beating a player ranked almost 100 places above you?

Obviously beating a higher ranked player gives you a lot of satisfaction. But this is not the first time that I had beaten a higher ranked shuttler. I have defeated other higher ranked players before as well. Winning against higher ranked opponents gives you the self-belief that you can beat the best in the business on any given day.

You reached a career-high ranking of 51at the start of 2012 and then you slipped steadily.

I had to give many tournaments a miss this year because of injuries. That’s why my ranking has dropped rapidly in recent times.

Saina Nehwal has really inculcated plenty of self-belief in our shuttlers by showing that Indians can beat the best in the business, especially the Chinese. What’s your take?

Yes, Saina has been a great source of inspiration for all of us. She had removed the fear of facing the mighty Chinese players from our mind.

What international competitions you are taking part in the new future?

I’m playing the Macau Open Grand Prix next week. I would also feature in the Tata
Open as well as in the Syed Modi memorial tournament.

You are employed with ONGC. How do you juggle between badminton and job?

ONGC is been of huge support, especially our games co-coordinator Sidhharth Jain. They have really taken good care of me and ensured that I don’t need to worry about my job and concentrate only on my game.

What long-term goals you have set for yourself?

Every sportsman has a dream to take part in Olympics. Even I have a dream to represent my country in the Olympics. Hopefully I will make the cut for the 2016 Rio Olympics,

What other things you do when you are not playing badminton?

I love to read novels and poems, they are my favourite pastimes.
You can follow the author on twitter here 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Assam Boxing Association brace up for 13th Senior Women Nationals

The Assam Amateur Boxing Association (AABA) is busy giving final touches to its preparations for the 13th edition of the Senior National Women’s Boxing Championship, which will be held at the Karmabir Nabin Chandra Bordoloi Indoor Stadium at Sarusajai sports complex in Guwahati from November 25 to 29.

The championship, which is being organized by AABA under the auspices of Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF), will witness the cream of country’s women boxers battling it out for the top honours. “We have put up two rings at the Karmabir Nabin Chandra Bordoloi Indoor Stadium. We are expecting participation of around 200 women pugilists in the five-day event. All the boxers would be lodged at the stadium complex while all the officials would be put up in various city hotels,” Assam Amateur Boxing Association (AABA) president Kali Kanta Boro said in an exclusive chat.

Around 60 officials from across the country will oversee the smooth conduct of the championship. These 60 officials will be assisted by 40 local officials.

The championship attaches immense significance as it would serve as a selection platform to pick the Indian women’s boxing probables for the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Every boxer knows the significance of this event and would be geared up to give his best shot at a podium finish. I’m sure Guwahati would witness five days of exciting boxing,” Boro added.

London Olympics bronze medallist Mary Kom, however, would not be participating in the championship. She has been invited to grace the opening ceremony as guest. Even Beijing Olympics bronze medallist Vijender Singh is likely to be present during the event as guest.

The AABA president said the association is leaving no stone unturned to make the championship a success. “The preparations have been going on smoothly and we hope to live up to the expectations of every one by conducting the championship in a grand manner,” he opined.

States like Haryana, Punjab, Manipur and hosts Assam are expected to have a field day. Haryana’s Pinki Jangra (world number 5 in 45-48 kg), Meena Rani (world number 8 in 64 kg) and Pooja Rani (world number 12 in 75 kg), Punjab’s Monica Saun (world number 9 in 69 kg), Manipur’s L Sarita Devi (world number 7 in 60 kg) and Mandakini Chanu (world number 19 in 57 kg), Assam’s trio of Minu Basumatary (world number 6 in 64 kg), Bhagyabati Kachari (world number 12 in 81kg) and Pwailao Basumatary (world number 15 in 54 kg) are expected to lend excitement to the ring.

The organizers have also intimated that arrangements are being made for live telecast of the championship. “DD Sports is likely to provide live telecast of the event,” Boro apprised.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Don't get carried away, says Virender Sehwag's coach Amar Nath Sarma

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Virender Sehwag has attracted stinging criticism off late, especially in the last 15 months or so for his rash shot selection and inconsistent batting form.

Sehwag regales us with quickfire 30s and 40s and perishes even before the fielding restrictions are removed in the one-day version, while in the Test arena, he menaces to take the opposition bowling attack by the scruff of the neck only to chuck his wicket away when he has the bowlers at his mercy.

Sehwag’s inability to learn from his mistakes and consistently toeing the ‘I’m playing my natural game’ line is becoming increasingly frustrating for his fans and supporters.

No one is questioning his batting credentials – he has got runs in all conditions – but the consistent manner in which he is throwing his wicket away after a getting a ‘start’ in recent times is triggering doubts about whether the best of Viru is over.

But Sehwag’s coach Amar Nath Sharma, who first spotted him at the Government Boys School ground at Vikas Puri in West Delhi when he was just 14, believes time has not yet come to write Sehwag off. “I don’t think there is anything amiss with his batting. Viru has scored runs on types of tracks with his attacking style,” he told Sportskeeda.

Sharma reckons the Najafgarh Bomber must work on being more selective in his shot selection. “I keep telling him that he must not get carried away just because he has clobbered the bowler for a four or a six. Look, if he has banged two boundaries off successive balls, he should curb himself going for a third one unless of course it is a loosener and deserves to be punished,” observed Sharma.

He stressed on the importance of spending more time at the crease, as that can richly benefit the team. “We all know what damage Sehwag can do to any bowling attack when he is on song. Not much needs to be said about it. It’s just a matter of exercising caution early on in the innings and runs will come at a canter,” he quipped.

Sehwag has amassed runs in Australia, but his appalling form in the 2011-12 series started a downward spiral, which has continued with occasional flashes of brilliance. So, does it have anything to do with his batting technique?

“Absolutely not. In Australia, the entire batting line-up barring Virat Kohli came a cropper, so why only talk about Sehwag? The ball darts around and it is a challenge for any batsman to get runs in such conditions. I feel that we didn’t do any homework after our 0-4 drubbing in the England Test series and we paid a big price for that,” he said.

Talking of the present, Sharma who played cricket till 1977, after which he gained qualification as a cricket coach, has no doubts that Sehwag would come out all guns blazing. “He just got a strokeful Ranji hundred against Uttar Pradesh after suffering a finger injury in the match. It shows he is in good nick and has fully recovered from his finger injury.”

On a curious note, one wants to know whether anything has changed between the two now that Sehwag has attained celebrity status? “Not all all. For me Sehwag is not a celebrity. He is still the simple, down-to-earth person he was when I first met him in the 90s,” Sharma remarked.

In the upcoming Test series against England, Sharma says India’s feeble bowling could get exposed. “England have a solid bowling attack while our attack is not that strong. A lot will depend on what type of wickets are prepared for the Test series. I would still back India to win the series,” he signed off.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

No team plays to lose, says India's hockey midfielder Kothajit Singh

This piece was published on Sportskeeda

Sports is a great leveller. Only four months back, Khadangbam Kothajit Singh was riddled with disappointment. The belligerent midfielder could not make it to the final squad of 16 (he was picked in the side only as a standby).

But that pall of dejection is now a thing of the past as Kothajit has been named the vice-captain of the Indian junior team for the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup beginning in Malaysia on Sunday. Not just that, the Manipuri lad has also rightfully earned his place in the senior team for the upcoming two tournaments in Australia – Lanco International Super Series and the prestigious Champions Trophy.

The 20-year-old Indian Oil employee, who has made 21 international appearances, polished his hockey skills in his formative years while turning out for the Posterior Hockey Academy Manipur (he started represented them since the age of 14). The nippy midfielder joined the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Lucknow centre in 2009, where he honed his skills under the watchful eyes of Mohammad Raza.

He made a big impression at the 34th National Games in Ranchi in 2011 before going on to make his senior international debut during the five-match Test series in early 2012.

Kothajit talked about the disappointment of missing the London Olympics among others in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.


You did a decent job at the 2012 London Olympics qualifiers held in New Delhi. You were part of the team for the four-nation tournament held in London prior to the Olympics as well as the 2012 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. How disappointing was it to know that you were named only as a standby?

Firstly, it was a strange feeling not to be part of the 16-member squad. But you must remember that I was part of the 18-member squad but as Olympic rules clearly state that only 16-member squads can be accommodated in the Olympics village, I had to be one of the two standbys.
I tried to remain positive telling myself that age is on my side and that I would get opportunities to represent the country at the Olympics in future provided I keep performing. I didn’t want to think too much about what was not in my hands.

There were huge expectations that the Indian team would give some top teams like Australia, Netherlands and Germany a run for their money, especially after the emphatic fashion in which the team performed in the Olympics qualifiers. Sitting on the sidelines, what do you think could have gone wrong?

I agree that the country had a lot of expectations from the team but tell me which teams plays to lose? Winning and losing is part and parcel of the game. It’s unfair for me to pinpoint any particular reason for our poor show given the fact I did not play at the Olympics.

You have been named the vice-captain of the Indian junior team for the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup. What are your thoughts on being entrusted with vice-captain responsibility?

I’m happy at being made the vice-captain of the team. Whether you are captain or vice-captain you got to perform. I’m playing in the Sultan of Johor Cup for the first time (I did not play the inaugural edition), which makes me extra determined to do well for the country.

How do you rate India’s chances in the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup?

I think it will be an evenly contested tournament. Australia, Germany, Pakistan, defending champions Malaysia are all dangerous opponents. India, too, have a capable side. I feel that any team that plays good hockey on a given day would pull it off.

Talking of your presence in the senior team, you would be playing under a new captain – Sardara Singh. Your thoughts.

I have always felt that a captain is only as good as his team. Sardarabhai is an extremely hardworking guy. He is always there with his inputs – he guides us on improvement areas. I’m looking forward to playing under him.

Indian team will have a new fitness trainer in Jason Conrath who will replace David John. John was been quite a hit with the boys for the manner in which he improved the fitness levels of our players. What’s your take?
David (John) really did a fantastic job. He would give us a tough workload but at the same time would also allow us enough recovery time. He would tell us when to take protein supplements and when not to take. If a player had excess fats, John would advise that player to avoid rice and opt for roti. Again for a player like me, he would advise me to take rice to add fat content in the system. The fitness levels of the boys improved significantly after he took over.

The prestigious Champions Trophy will be India’s next major tournament after the disastrous London Olympics campaign. How well prepared are India for this tournament?

It’s not going to be easy for us as all the world’s top teams would be participating. We have worked hard at the national camp in Patiala, hopefully we would put up a good show.

Every player likes to think that there is always room for improvement. What areas do you think you need to work on?

I don’t want to dwell on what improvement areas I need to work on but yes, I’m short on experience at the moment and would like to gain more experience.

You played in the four-nation London Olympics preparatory tournament in London as well as at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. For someone who made your senior international debut this January (against South Africa in the first Test at Delhi), exposure-wise what have you gained from these two tournaments?

The London four-nation tournament helped me to gain experience of playing against European teams who indulge in body play. You have to play 70 minutes of tough, rugged hockey as teams resort to pushing and tight marking. At the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, I was more exposed to the Asian style of hockey with not much body play involved. Both these tourneys besides my debut series against South Africa have helped me to improve as a player.

What long-term goals you want to achieve for the Indian hockey team?

I want to play a big part in India bagging a gold medal at the Olympics as well winning major events like the World Cup and Champions Trophy.

What kind of high you get wearing an Indian hockey team shirt?

It’s hard to describe that feeling. When I was playing my debut match against South Africa, I was wearing pride in my India shirt. I still remember the sight of singing the national anthem in that game when I had tears in my eyes.

You are born in a hockey family. Your three elder brothers have played for ONGC and Army XI. Your elder sister was also a hockey goalkeeper. So you took to hockey like a fish takes to water.

They all had a huge influence on me taking up hockey. Dhaneshwor Singh and Rinen Kumar play for Army XI, while Jayanta Kumar plays for ONGC.

Manipur has boasted of producing players like Thoiba Singh, Tikken Singh, Neelkamal Singh and Brojen Singh. You are bandied about as the next best hope from not just Manipur but also from the Northeast region. How does it feel?

Thoiba, Tikken, Neelkamal and Brojen have all served the country with great distinction. I have a long way to go before I can come anywhere close to their feats. I will be delighted if I’m remembered like them once I call it a day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How Saina Nehwal became an inspirational tonic for other Indian shuttlers

This piece was published on Sportskeeda
Saina Nehwal’s bodacious performance over the last few years (especially 2012 – which has been a super year for her) has taken Indian badminton to a new ‘high’ – a high from which it can only scale further up. For someone who is just 22, the Hyderabad girl already appears like a veteran, having spent more than six years on the senior international circuit.

It’s not just the wins that Saina has achieved that makes her fans happy; the manner in which she goes about achieving them which leaves all spellbound. She has developed this uncanny knack of wriggling out of tight situations and taking her opponents by the scruff of the neck just when it seems she had thrown in the towel.

Without a shadow of doubt, Saina Nehwal has served as an inspirational tonic for the other Indian shuttlers (both men and women).

Her consistent victories over top ranked players have rubbed off on someone like Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, better known as PV Sindhu. The 17-year-old– also from the same city as Saina– grabbed international attention when she shocked London Olympics gold medallist (then world number 3) Li Xuerei 21-19, 9-21, 21-16 to romp into the semifinals of the China Masters.

The Chinese conquest was not the only for Sindhu. The gangling youngster staged another upset in the earlier round when she ousted 8th seed Porntip Buranaprasertsuk (then world no. 14) of Thailand 10-21, 21-7, 21-19 in the second round.

The ‘Saina effect’ was also seen in the recent impressive performances of our male shuttlers. First mention has to be made of Sania’s good friend and city mate Parupalli Kashyap, who has had a commendable 2012 – a man who got himself diagnosed with asthma in the early part of his career.

Kashyap – the highest ranked Indian in the men’s singles (ranked 22nd) – gave the upcoming male shuttlers in the country plenty to rejoice about when he went on a giant-killing spree at the 2012 Djaram Indonesian Open in June this year. The 26-year-old pulled off the biggest career win when he shocked world no. 3 Chen Long of China 21-17, 21-14 in the pre-quarterfinals before accounting for (then world no. 16) Hans-Kristian Vittinghus of Denmark 21-15, 21-14.

Kashyap later created history at the London Olympics when he became the first Indian male shuttler to reach the men’s singles quarterfinals. The Indian vanquished tenth seed Tien Minh Nguyen (then world no. 11) of Vietnam 21-9, 21-14 in the pre-quarters.

The ‘Saina effect’ is not exclusive to the Hyderabad circuit. Mumbai boy Ajay Jayaram sprang a massive surprise when he put it across third seed Kenichi Tago (then world no.9) of Japan 21-13, 21-17 in the first round of the China Masters this September. The Indian Oil employee – who is the second highest ranked singles player (ranked 26th) went on to enter the semifinals where he lost 16-21, 18-21 to Hong Kong’s Yun Hu.

Another shuttler who has been improving in leaps and bounds is Sourabh Varma. Varma, who moved up to 30th position in WBF rankings, upset world no.8 and home crowd favorite Peter Gade 21-18, 21-14 in first round of the Danish Open recently.

Even RMV Gurusaidutt has been making a steady climb in rankings (ranked 42nd). The 22-year-old stunned former All-England champion (2003 champion) Muhammad Hafiz Hashim 21-18, 19-21, 21-13 in the first round of the China Masters before disposing of higher ranked fellow Indian Parupalli Kashyap in the second round to make it to the last eight stage. It was indeed a praiseworthy effort by the Indian, who ran out steam against world no. 3 Chen Long of China in the quarter-finals.

Clearly, Saina Nehwal has ingrained one most important trait – self-belief in our shuttlers; the belief to be, and beat, the best in the business.

The Badminton Association of India (BAI) also deserves a big pat on the back for the way they are running the sport in the country. National chief coach and former All England champion Pullela Gopichand has been doing a stupendous job behind the scenes, which is triggering consistently impressive performances from our shuttlers on the international circuit.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Indian team selection: Can our selectors take hard decisions?

This piece was published on Sportskeeda

Every time a national cricket selection committee meeting is scheduled to pick the Indian team for an international assignment, I’m lulled into racking my brains on whether the five national selectors really get a ‘free hand’ to pick a side which they think is the best for the country.

The same thoughts swept through my mind as the newly constituted Sandeep Patil-chaired national selection committee picked a 15-member side for the first two Tests against England.

The selection (performed by the new selection panel) lacked any ‘will’ whatsoever to build a team for the future and projected as if there is no talent available across the country.

Murali Vijay’s selection as a reserve opener is beyond my comprehension. The Chennai lad has played 12 Tests for India but often through the default route – when established guys like Gautam Gambhir or Virender Sehwag were injured or skipped matches because of personal reasons.

Vijay may not have done that badly in the Test arena in home conditions, but one thought it was a perfect opportunity to blood some new talent rather than giving look-ins to players who already had a chance, but failed.

Vijay’s selection would make someone like Ajinkya Rahane really confused about his role in the side. If the selectors are dropping hints that they are grooming Rahane as a middle-order bat, then they are surely walking down the wrong path. The likes of Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh can cement those spots with others like Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina providing the competitive flavour.

I have nothing against Vijay but can’t help the feeling that the ‘Chennai’ factor had a big say in his inclusion. Interestingly, he replaces another Chennai lad – Subramanium Badrinath – who, too has been given enough chances to prove his worth at the international level.

It’s difficult to see both Vijay and Rahane do anything but perform the towel and drinks-carrying duties during the Test series. Indian cricket isn’t that rich in talent that it can replace the might of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir overnight.

Granted, both the Delhi duo have not been firing as consistently as they would have liked in recent times, but they have the ability to make any international team pay for taking them lightly.

The recall of Yuvraj Singh was a pragmatic one and was on expected lines. One can feel sorry for Suresh Raina, but I have always felt that a fit and on-song Yuvraj should always be preferred over someone like the UP southpaw, who never appears as Test cricket material to me.

Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni is also lucky to have the blessings of the ‘Chennai’ factor. After all, in how many countries would you see a player retain captaincy despite eight consecutive overseas Test losses in England and Australia (not to speak of his pathetic Test batting form)? Such a thing happens only in India and Dhoni can lead the Test side as long as he wants to or until he gets ‘bored’.

Harbhajan Singh’s call-up to the Test side was another massive surprise. Bhajji was axed during the 2011 England tour and the circumstances under which he has made a Test comeback are questionable. What Harbhajan did in the time period he was out of the Test side to merit a recall should be best left to Sandeep Patil and co. to explain.

Of course, experience quotient was a big factor, but do we see Harbhajan sneak into the playing eleven, given the recent prolific form of R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha? It would be unfair if one of them has to make way for Bhajji; also, it might not do any good to their confidence. Even if Harbhajan is made to sit out, it would defeat the selectors’ very purpose of summoning him. There is only remote possibility of India playing three spinners, and hence, it’s difficult to see Bhajji get a game.

Zaheer Khan rightfully finds his Test spot despite having a few niggles. Umesh Yadav should be encouraged to bowl long spells and not just to take the shine off the new ball as it is the case in Indian conditions. Yadav has lethal pace and can cause devastation on even a docile deck.

The selection of the 15-member side also throws up one question: can our selectors really take hard decisions? We all remember how Kiran More, during his stint as chief national selector, dropped Sourav Ganguly in 2005. Dilip Vengsarkar also showed he meant business when he wielded the axe on Virender Sehwag in 2007.

But the new selection committee, like its predecessor Krishnamachari Srikkanth-chaired selection committee, failed to work in a similar fashion.

No doubt, Srikkanth’s stint was marked by the high of India winning the 2011 World Cup and India climbing to no.1 in Test rankings, but it was also not free from controversies. The inclusion of ‘Chennai’ players in various formats would be always seen in a different light, as will his inability to crack the captaincy whip on Dhoni.

A selector’s job is a lucrative one these days and this could be one reason that could hold them back to be blunt, as incurring the wrath of the people (BCCI top-brass) who appoint them, would be the last thing they want.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Must improve playing standards, says triumphant T20 Asia Cup team captain Mithali Raj

This piece was published in Sportskeeda 

At 29, Mithali Raj almost seems like a veteran, having played international cricket for thirteen years. The soft-spoken Indian women’s cricket team captain talks tough with the bat and invariably leads from the front. The right-handed top-order batter has played 141 ODIs, 37 T20s and 8 Tests for the country. The Indian captain is on a high after leading the team (she missed the final because of an ankle injury and vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur took charge) to the Asia Cup T20 glory in Guangzhou, China.

Mithali talked about the Indian women team’s T20 Asia Cup triumph as well as about the upcoming 2013 World Cup to held in India, in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.

Heartiest congratulations on winning the T20 Asia Cup. Your thoughts?
Raj: Thank you very much. The Asia Cup triumph was important for the team after our disappointing performance in the T20 World Cup. It was a good opportunity for the young girls to gain exposure of playing in a major tournament. The girls were keen to prove that they were the best team in the Asian region. I hope this augurs well for the future of Indian women’s cricket.

India defeated Pakistan to win the T20 Asia Cup crown after our loss to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup. So do you think it was sweet revenge for the girls?
You can say that. We are a better team than Pakistan. We lost to them in the T20 World Cup – very narrowly, by just one run – not because they played some extraordinary cricket but because we under-performed. On any given day, we have the wherewithal to beat them. But you got to accept that sometimes results can go against you in the shorter formats like T20.

India played the final match against Pakistan without you and Jhulan Goswami – both of you were injured. Does that speak anything about our bench strength?
Raj: I missed the final because of an ankle injury, while Jhulan also gave the final a miss. Of course, it is heartening to see some of the youngsters shouldering responsibility. Youngsters do need seniors to guide them but there comes a time when they have to deliver in the middle and that’s what the girls did. I’m so proud of this team.

Harmanpreet Kaur led the side against Pakistan due to your injury-forced absence. She is being talked about the best thing to have happened to Indian women’s cricket. What’s your take?
Raj: It’s good for the Indian team. She led the side well in the final against Pakistan. For long, we struggled to sort our middle-order but the presence of Harmanpreet lends solidity to our middle-order. You got to have a robust opening pair or a solid middle-order and if you don’t have both, you are going to flounder. She bats at number 4 and I hope she continues to do well in future as well.

Women cricketers are not known to hit the ball a long way. But we hear that Harmanpreet does give the ball a whack?
Raj: She does. The good thing is that she can play the big shots against the seamers as well as the spinners with equal finesse.

Women’s cricket has undergone a change in recent times. Earlier, Australia, England, New Zealand and India used to be the top four sides in the world but now teams like West Indies and Pakistan are coming up the ladder. What’s your take?
Raj: It’s good for the game. The focus on Women’s cricket has increased in West Indies and Pakistan, which is showing in their performances on the international stage.

2012 hasn’t been a great year for India. We lost to West Indies (in West Indies) and later to Australia (at home); how do you assess India’s performance in these two series?
Raj: Well, the West Indies series was well-fought and we were unlucky to lose. But the 3-0 whitewash at the hands of Australia allowed us to know where we actually stand as compared to the Aussies. It’s difficult to pinpoint any particular reason for the series defeat, but surely it was a huge learning curve for the girls.

Anjum Chopra was sacked as captain after the twin series defeats and the captaincy baton was handed over to you. Were you under any kind of pressure when you led the team in ODI series in England?
Raj: I wouldn’t like to believe that I was under any kind of pressure. I did not get runs in the Australia series and was determined to be among the runs. I took the captaincy responsibility as a challenge.

How disappointed were you to lose the England series, although you were in good form?Raj: I was happy to press the run-scoring button but was extremely dejected with the series outcome, especially when you take into consideration the fact that we had taken a 2-0 lead in the 5-match series. We should have won that series.

You made your international debut in 1999. At 29, you are almost like a veteran. Do you think you are almost indispensable in the side. How does that feel?
Raj: I have played international cricket for 13 years but still don’t think I’m indispensable. I would like more youngsters to come to the fore. The pride and motivation to wear the India cap is still same as it was when I made my international debut against Ireland at Milton Keynes way back in 1999.

Indian women’s cricket needs to have a wider talent pool. Your thoughts?
Raj: Our current domestic structure does not churn out quality cricketers. We must play more domestic matches. For example, I play around 18 to 20 matches in a year for Indian Railways and we play in most of the finals. Besides, we must look at ways and means to improve our playing standards.

The 2013 Women’s ODI World Cup would be held in in India (India is hosting the marquee event for the third time after earlier hosting it in 1978 and 1997) from January 31 to February 17. What are the preparatory plans lined up for the team?
Raj: Our domestic circuit will be in full swing soon and probably in January, we would have a national camp before the mega event.

How do you assess India’s chances at the World Cup?
Raj: Australia and England would be the favorites; although, we will be playing at home and that should us make us strong title contenders as well.

Having served Indian cricket for ten years, you have got yourself married to the game. Your thoughts?
Raj: I have fallen in love with cricket and got married to it long back (grins). On a serious note, my parents are keen that I settle down. I would settle down in future but for now, marriage can wait.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Assam Football Association gears up for Nov 14 India-Yemen friendly

This piece was published on Sportskeeda

The Assam Football Association (AFA) is busy making preparations for the November 14 India-Yemen international friendly to be played at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Sarusajai in Guwahati.

The match will be the second FIFA international friendly match for India, after last month’s face off against Singapore which India lost 2-0.

All India Football Federation (AIFF) tournament director Anit Kamat inspected the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium. “Anil Kamat visited the Sarusajai Stadium and was satisfied with our arrangements. Our preparations are going on smoothly,” Assam Football Association (AFA) secretary Ankur Dutta told Sportskeeda in an informal chat.

The AFA secretary further added that the association has roped in a curator from Kolkata to provide the finishing touches towards the preparation of the ground.

Dutta intimated that both teams would arrive on November 11 and 12 respectively. “The Indian team would arrive in Guwahati on November 11 and would be staying in Hotel Gateway Grandeur, while the Yemen team would be accommodated at Hotel Nakshatra,” he quipped.

India are currently ranked 168th in the world, having moved up one place recently, while Yemen are ranked 157th.

The AFA secretary also apprised that the association is making all efforts to provide live telecast of the November 14 tie. “At this point in time, I can tell you that we are making efforts to ensure live telecast of the match. It could be possible that DD Sports may beam the match live but it is too early to confirm anything on this. Let’s see how things pan out,” he opined.

The match would kick off at 5.30 pm and would be played under floodlights.

It may be mentioned here that India last played Yemen in an international match in October 2010 at the Balewadi Sports Stadium in Pune and lost 3-6.

This is the second time that Guwahati is staging an international friendly match. In November 2011, India played Malaysia in a match that ended in a 1-1 draw. Malaysia had taken the lead through Rahim Safiq in the 42nd minute before Syed Rahim Nabi restored parity in the 88th minute. The match was watched by 20,000-odd spectators.

Meanwhile, the AIFF tournament director Anil Kamat urged AFA to keep the ground in proper shape for the future tournaments given the fact that Guwahati is shortlisted as one of the six venues for the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup (for which India made a bid)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

I-League: Desi forwards overshadowed by foreign firepower

This piece was published on Sportskeeda

The I-league is seen as a springboard to throw up some of the country’s fresh, exciting talents to the fore. But the 16th edition hasn’t had much to offer, especially after the third round of matches.

The 2012-13 season had bucketful of surprises with some of the underdogs – Shillong Lajong and United Sikkim orchestrating unexpected victories over much fancied opponents. Shillong Lajong made the most of the home crowd advantage, humbling Mohun Bagan 2-0 in their league opener, while debutants United Sikkim made a dream start to their campaign, stunning Salgaocar 3-2.

That’s not all, Shillong Lajong later held Salgaocar to a 1-1 draw to ensure some of the fancied teams had a forgettable beginning to the I-league.

Besides the ‘surprise’ element, the tournament has been overshadowed by the firepower of the foreign players, especially those up front. Japanese attacking midfielder Ryuji Sueoka has been the man to watch out for defending champions Dempo – finding his scoring boots with increasing regularity. The 33-year-old, who turned out for Salgaocar last season, announced himself in the 16th I-League, netting a brace to seal the fate of Churchill Brothers, before finding his name on the score sheet in every game his side has played so far.

Nigerian Koko Sakibo, who had to fill in the massive shoes of invincible Ranty Martins, has also risen to the occasion and offered excellent support to Sueoka upfront, finding the target twice so far.

Besides Sueoka and Sakibo, we are also anticipating great things from former Arsenal player Rohan Ricketts in the upcoming games.

If Sueoka and Sakibo are doing the ‘goal scoring’ job for Dempo, their Goan rivals Churchill Brothers are hugely benefiting from the presence of Lebanese striker Akram Moghrabi and Brazilian Beto (Dempo captain), who has been leading by example.

Moghrabi, in particular, has been in stupendous form, firing a superb hat-trick against ONGC FC. Moghrabi is forming a goal scoring combo with Beto, who found the back of the opposition goal in every match for the Red Machines.

Another Goan side, Salgaocar has also seen their Philippines striker Angel Guirado come to the party. Guirado, whose signing was facilitated after the Goan club released Nigerian forward Hamza Amaba (who joined Vasco Sports Club), gave his side the lead against United Sikkim before the home side messed up their hopes. The six feet two inch tall striker once again put his side ahead against Shillong Lajong, scoring off a freekick before the Northeastern side restored parity.

Even the big-spending Prayag United has been riding on the prolific form of Ranty Martins. Martins slammed a fine hat-trick against Air India – the first of the tournament – to straight away assert his supremacy in the league. New Zealand’s Kayne Vincent is playing the support cast role admirably.

Former giants Mohun Bagan have been going through a torrid time, and are heavily banking on Odafa Okolie to bulge the net for them and he has obliged them with two strikes so far, while Australian Tolgay Ozbey is expected to unleash more firepower in later games.

Pune FC is also indebted to Japanese attacking medio Daisuke Nishiguchi, who has lent solidity to the team’s frontline.

Debutants United Sikkim are reaping the benefits of having Nigerian Nurudeen Salau in their ranks. Salau scored a crucial goal in Snow Lions’ upset win over Salgaocar before finding the target in a lost cause against Dempo.

Even Mumbai FC – one of the bottom-placed teams – are also counting on foreign firepower to keep their fortunes alive. Nigerian David Opara and Ghanaian old warhourse Yusif Yakubu (who wasn’t available from the beginning of the league, only arrived later), have been doing the goal-scoring duties for them.

The Nigerian duo of Ebi Sukore and Friday Gbeneme – both of whom earlier played for Mumbai FC – to some extent, have also justified their presence in the side, finding their scoring boots.

But the overwhelming dominance of  foreign players begs one question: where are our Indian strikers? Sad to say, barring a few, there has been very little to write home about.

Pailan Arrows’ Holicharan Narzary has been one of the few bright sparks of the I-League. The 19-year-old Assam lad struck thrice to grab the eyeballs early on in the tournament.

Shillong Lajong’s 21-year-old Manipur midfielder Boithang Haokip is another one who has impressed, scoring one key goal in their stunning 2-0 win over Mohun Bagan.

Although these are early days, one hopes that the 16th I-League throws up talents who can serve the national team, and that the staging of the tournament is not reduced to a mere formality.