Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Indian hockey team has learnt to fight hard and not offer meek surrenders, says Indian coach Michael Nobbs

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

There was a huge outpouring of anger and disgust after the Indian men’s hockey team’s wooden spoon finish at the London Olympics  – the bottom-place finish prompted legions of hockey fans to bay for the blood of the national players, more particularly chief coach Michael Nobbs.

Four months after the London Olympics, the national team is injecting a ray of hope after its creditable fourth place finish in the 34th FIH Champions Trophy, followed by a runners-up performance at the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy in Doha.

India went down fighting 4-5 against arch-rivals Pakistan in the summit clash, but were justifiably furious with Korean umpire Yun Shin Dong, who first awarded a penalty stroke and later reversed the decision, prompting captain Sardar Singh to lead his players off the field with three minutes remaining from the final hooter.

Indian team chief coach Michael Nobbs reckons the Korean umpire denied the Indian a second shot at the Asian Champions Trophy title. “It was poor umpiring from Yun. He first awarded a penalty stroke after SV Sunil was pushed inside the Pakistan D and later cancelled it after consulting the third umpire and awarded Pakistan a 16-yard hit. That’s when Sardar was livid and led his team off the turf. We discussed the issue on the sidelines and decided to resume action, but that incident left a bitter taste in our mouths,” Nobbs revealed the unsavoury developments to Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

The final was a cracker of a match, replete with end-to-end action which must have left the spectators hugely satisfied. “It was a classic India-Pakistan match filled with fast-paced hockey. We fought hard but there is no disgrace in losing 4-5 in a final match. Had we got that penalty stroke in our favour, who knows the final outcome could have been different,” Nobbs quipped.

The refreshing part of Indian hockey after the London Olympics has been their tenacity to claw their way back from crisis situations and not lose matches tamely. Nobbs believes the induction of youngsters has hugely helped. “Since the London Olympics, we have blooded a lot of youngsters, which has helped our cause. You got to have a right blend of youth and experience – you can’t be a winning side with only youngsters; similarly you can’t be a winning side with only ageing and experience players – a right mix of youth and experience has been our success recipe in our recent tournaments.”

Nobbs is glad to see the Australian brand of tough hockey in the current Indian team. “This team has learnt to fight hard and not offer meek surrenders – I come from Australia – where we played tough, rugged hockey – Kookaburras may win or lose but always go hard at their opponents, so it’s pleasing to see the same competitive spirit in this Indian side,” he observed.

India may have fared well in the FIH Champions Trophy as well as in the Asian Champions Trophy, but Nobbs has clearly outlined his priorities. “We got to have a wide base. Look at the Australian team, they have a pool of 30-35 players. At the moment, we have 18 players up to the standards I’m looking for, ideally I’m looking for a pool of around 30-35 players. If we can have such a player base, it will be a happy situation to be in. You also got to remember that if the same players keep playing day in day out they will eventually burn out,” the Aussie touched a pertinent point.

One of the biggest positives of India from the Asian Champions Trophy has been the much improved defending skills of Vokkaliga Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh. Nobbs is of the opinion that the duo can only get better. “With the absence of the seniors, Raghunath and Rupinder have assumed more responsibility. They take a lot of pride in playing for the country and it showed in their performance. Even our penalty corner conversions have improved since the London Olympics though there is plenty of room for improvement in this area,” he skirted against any complacency.

There is also healthy competition in the Indian goalkeeping department with PR Sreejesh and PT Rao doing well with London Olympics captain Bharat Chetri sitting out. Nobbs agrees it is a positive augury for the team. “It’s good to have a problem of plenty when it comes to selecting players. Both Sreejesh and Rao are performing well. Both have different goalkeeping styles – Sreejesh has quick reflexes but Rao does not have quick reflexes, but makes up for that with his experience of being playing at the senior level for 14 years and is also a tough nut to crack.”

When asked how Sardar Singh has shaped up after taking over the mantle of captaincy from Bharat Chetri after the Olympics, Nobbs exuded hope, “Sardar is a role model for not just the Indian players but also the world over. He leads from the front; even Raghunath as vice-captain has done a fair job.”

Sandeep Singh of India celebrates his fiIndian team dished out an impressive performance in the last two international tournaments sans many of its senior players – more prominently drag-flicker Sandeep Singh.

Nobbs feels that the national team door is still open for Sandeep. “Age is not a barrier for any player. If a player brings value to the side but is on the wrong side of thirty, I’m not going to hold the age factor against him and would pick him. Sandeep has to reinvent himself. We all know about his penalty corner prowess. He has to improve his agility and man-to-man marking. He knows it and is working on it. Hope he fares well in the upcoming Hockey India League,” something which should sound like music to the ears of the ace fullback.

Nobbs also held out hope for discarded strikers – Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandker. “Like Sandeep, they can also stage a comeback. They have the Hockey India League to show that they are ready to play for the national team. They are strikers and their job is to score and score consistently, it’s as simple as that.”

The Indian coach has no doubts that the inaugural Hockey India League would be a huge boon for the Indian players. “It’s a great opportunity for the national as well as the fringe players to make an impression – they can gain exposure by playing with some of the world’s top players and also know where they stand.”

Like many of us, was he surprised at the latest FIH world hockey rankings, which put India at 11th position despite a fourth place finish at the FIH Champions Trophy?

“Yeah, I was little surprised but not too concerned as we qualified for the next year’s Champions Trophy,” he signed off.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Repeated non-telecast of international matches a dampener for Indian hockey buffs!

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
There is so much talk going around in various quarters about the need to uplift the sport of hockey in the country. So much has been documented about the crying need to arrest the dipping popularity of hockey.

Granted, a sport’s popularity hinges a lot on the national team’s performance on the international stage. And our national team has done the best it could at the 34th FIH Champions Trophy, finishing a creditable fourth after the walloping at the London Olympics.

But is a good performance from the national team enough to raise the popularity of the sport? The answer is a big ‘no’ – a team may deliver consistently on the international stage, but it would be a futile exercise if it is unaccompanied by extensive television coverage.

The repeated non-telecast of the national hockey team’s recent international engagements has been a huge disappointing for our ardent hockey fans.

If we delve deep into Indian team’s 2012 international assignments, we quickly realize that barring the 2012 Olympic qualifiers and the 34th Champions Trophy (Ten Sports has exclusive rights for live telecast of FIH-run tournaments), and London Olympics (for which ESPN-Star Sports have bought exclusive rights), none of the other international tournaments featuring the Indian men’s and women’s teams were shown live on any of the sports channels; worse, not even a highlights package of these events was shown.

The 2012 Sultan Azlan Shah held in Malaysia almost suffered the same fate before Neo Sports stepped in at the last minute and provided live telecast of the tournament.

The senior men’s team is currently playing in the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy in Doha and for the second time (like the inaugural edition last year), there is no live telecast of the event.

Even the senior women’s team took part in a Champions Challenge tournament in Ireland and later in a six Test series in New Zealand this year, but sadly no arrangements were made for live telecast or even a highlights package of both these tourneys.

If there can be no live telecast for senior teams, it is pointless to expect live telecast of international tournaments featuring our junior teams – for instance, the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup (where India finished runners-up) met the same fate.

One is not sure who is to be blamed for the sorry state of affairs. Hockey India – the body that runs the sport in the country – must take some responsibility for the current scenario. If BCCI can evince interest in television coverage of the Indian cricket team’s international games, why can’t HI at least take a cue from them, if not match them?

It’s surprising that Hockey India did all the spadework to sign a multi-year broadcast deal with ESPN Star Sports for live telecast of the inaugural Hockey India League, but they seem incapable of working out any telecast arrangements for our national team’s international tournaments, save for the Olympics and FIH-run events.

What’s more, ESPN Star Sports has also won the global broadcast rights to telecast five Tests matches featuring India (to be played in India) every year for the next five years. With a more proactive approach, I’m sure HI could have facilitated the live telecast of the ongoing Asian Champions Trophy as well as the other international tourneys of our men’s and women’s  teams.

Indian women’s team badly needs a big push and merely taking part in international tournaments sans television coverage would be a dampener as far as raising the profile of the sport in the country is concerned.

As for the ongoing Asian Champions Trophy, one is not sure what role Asian Hockey Federation (AHF) – the organisers of the tournament – could have played in ensuring television coverage of the event. Non-telecast of the event for the second time running not only dilutes the profile of the tournament but also deprives hockey fans of seeing their national players in action.

Hockey India secretary Narinder Batra is also one of the Asian Hockey Federation (AHF) vice presidents, and surely he could have used his good office in ensuring live telecast of the tourney.

One fully understands that providing live telecast of an event is easier said than done. Notwithstanding that, one wants to know why the people concerned could not spare some efforts to show a highlights package of our national teams’ international engagements.

Squarely blaming HI is not enough. National sports broadcaster – DD Sports – must also pull up its socks in this regard. DD Sports greets you with repeated broadcast of the stale London Olympics and hardly comes up with live telecast of major events these days.

It is difficult to say whether it is lack of will of people concerned or official bottlenecks that deprives hockey fans of watching their national players (men and women) on television.

Clearly, the Indian hockey fans deserve much more!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How Tendulkar passed on the mantle of match-winning responsbilities to others

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Sachin Tendulkar finally drew the curtains on his illustrious one-day international career, leaving behind a legacy of grit, determination, grace, dignity and much more! 463 one-dayers, 18,426 runs, 49 centuries, 96 half-centuries and an average of 44.83 is indeed a towering achievement. It’s fair to say that it would take something out of the ordinary for anyone to come anywhere close to his feats, let alone matching them.

There has been a huge clamor over the past few months for the maestro to call time on his international career – the only difference being that the calls were much shriller for him to quit the Test arena. In fact, there have been hushed whispers in certain quarters about Tendulkar’s move to pick and choose one-day internationals – the general feeling was that he should make his stand clear about playing in the ODIs rather than make himself available for one series and unavailable for another. One is not sure whether the consistent debate about his retirement in the media, along with former cricketers pressing for his final bow from international cricket had anything to do with Tendulkar’s decision to call it quits from the 50-over format just days before the T20 and ODI series against arch-rivals Pakistan.

Sachin Tendulkar finally drew the curtains on his illustrious one-day international career, leaving behind a legacy of grit, determination, grace, dignity and much more! 463 one-dayers, 18,426 runs, 49 centuries, 96 half-centuries and an average of 44.83 is indeed a towering achievement. It’s fair to say that it would take something out of the ordinary for anyone to come anywhere close to his feats, let alone matching them.

There has been a huge clamor over the past few months for the maestro to call time on his international career – the only difference being that the calls were much shriller for him to quit the Test arena. In fact, there have been hushed whispers in certain quarters about Tendulkar’s move to pick and choose one-day internationals – the general feeling was that he should make his stand clear about playing in the ODIs rather than make himself available for one series and unavailable for another. One is not sure whether the consistent debate about his retirement in the media, along with former cricketers pressing for his final bow from international cricket had anything to do with Tendulkar’s decision to call it quits from the 50-over format just days before the T20 and ODI series against arch-rivals Pakistan.

Sachin Tendulkar’s contribution to the Indian ODI cricket has been immense. There was a time when the Indian innings’ in the ODI format revolved around Tendulkar. He had such an invincible presence in the side that every opposition knew that a match was in their bag once they dismissed Tendulkar. The champion batsman’s back-to-back centuries (143 and 134) against Australia in Sharjah in 1997-98 still remains fresh in our memories; it showed in ample measure how India’s fortunes hinged on him. Tendulkar has provided abundant entertainment over the years and no one can question that. The manner in which he opened the Indian innings for the first time in one-day internationals and cracked a scintillating 82 off only 49 balls against New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland, even today evokes fond memories among the legion of Sachin fans.

How can one forget the way in which Tendulkar went hammer and tongs at Shoaib Akhtar during his rollicking 75-ball 98 against Pakistan at the 2003 World Cup – a knock which still gives huge satisfaction to his fans given the fact that it came against our arch-rivals. There are many memorable knocks Tendulkar essayed in his glorious one-day international career that won bucketful of matches for the men in blue, but the greatest service he did to Indian cricket was to smoothly pass on the mantle of match-winning responsibilities to others.

From a team that was banking on Tendulkar to get runs and win games for India on a consistent basis, the men in blue evolved as a team as the likes of Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli started to shoulder more responsibility. Tendulkar continued to provide the guide cast even as the others started to make their presence felt – the best thing that could have happened to Indian cricket – a far cry from the nineties when India was struggling to find genuine match-winners.

One may never know whether Tendulkar chose to make his way out of the ODI format because he felt he was blocking the way of an upcoming youngster or because he thought it was indeed the right time to make a move on; or if the selectors had a quiet word with him and convinced him to bid adios to ODI cricket, but the fact remains that Tendulkar’s marvelous contribution to Indian cricket must be talked about glowingly rather than focus being centered on why he choose to call it quits!

Monday, December 17, 2012

It’s time BCCI strips Dhoni of Test captaincy!

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Indian cricket is going through trying times. Let’s remove the artificial façade - ‘all is well with Indian cricket’ – and carry out a reality check. A team, which was dubbed ‘poor travellers abroad’ for many years due to its inability to stay ‘competitive’ outside the subcontinent, dispelled that notion over the years, winning Test matches in Australia, South Africa and England.

Team India started gaining the respect of the top Test teams by the dint of their consistent performances, which culminated in India winning the 2011 ODI World Cup in their own backyard.

It seemed like nothing could go wrong with Indian cricket after Dhoni’s men won the World Cup. But what unfolded after that epochal moment was a turbulent period where the team discovered the ‘art of losing matches without a fight’.

A 0-4 walloping at the hands of England last year, followed by a 0-4 shellacking by Australia brought into focus the frailties of the Indian team. The message was loud and clear for the rival teams: prepare a green top; bowl a fuller length as well as the short pitched stuff to keep the batsmen guessing and let the pitch do the rest – not to forget the slip fielders, who are thirsting to grab anything that comes their way from the edges.

The same act of Indian batsmen fishing at deliveries outside the off-stump and being left bamboozled by the short pitched stuff, keeping the wicketkeeper and slip fielders and forward short-leg and silly point fielders interested, came to the fore in England and Australia, where the Indian batsmen cut a sorry figure.

Indian team had a Test captain in Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who was clueless against all the questions asked by the English and Australian bowlers. Every defeat was accompanied with clichés like blaming the batsmen or bowlers.

There has been a loud clamour from various quarters for the removal of Dhoni as Test captain, but all these had little impact on the BCCI top-brass, who continue to back the Ranchi man for reasons not known to us.

BCCI hardly indulged in any introspection after the twin disasters in England and Australia. The biggest problem with Indian cricket is that every disastrous overseas tour is forgotten once it is followed by a home series – batsmen gets runs and suddenly everything looks hunky-dory. No time is lost in painting a rosy picture of Team India.

The two Test home series against New Zealand precisely did that; it removed the cobwebs of loopholes that the team was struggling to plug since the same batsmen, who were floundering in Australia, began to hit form; especially Dhoni, who got a couple of decent scores to extend his stay as Test captain.

And the 1-2 Test series defeat to England only enhances the thinking that the time has come for a change of guard as far as the Indian Test captaincy is concerned.

Dhoni’s critics might well say that he got a fighting 99 in the Nagpur Test to save his team from suffering a 1-3 series defeat. But that is hardly going to hold water as one has to dig deep and see what Dhoni had done as captain in the last thirteen Tests.

Until his knock of 99 in the Nagpur Test, Dhoni has struggled to come anywhere close to smacking a Test century in his 22 Test innings; isn’t that a far longer rope Dhoni is getting, simply because he won us the 2011 World Cup?

The Indian cricket culture is such that if a batsman hits a century, he can be rest assured of his Test spot for another 5-10 Tests; similarly if a bowler snaffles a five-for, he can conveniently hold his place for 5-6 Tests.

Dhoni comes into bat at number seven and his aggregate of six half centuries in his last 23 Test innings – sans any big impact knocks – is hardly what one expects from a captain. Remember Australian Adam Gilchrist, who would not only keep wickets for long hours but also pummel the opposition into submission with such consistency that it would leave some of the top-order batsmen squirming.

One is not trying to compare Dhoni with Gilly, but the fact remains that Dhoni has not been able to achieve even half of what Gilly had attained in the Test arena.

Former national selector Mohinder Amarnath has been vocal in saying that Dhoni does not deserve a Test spot on current form, let alone captaincy. His bold revelations that the current selection committee does not have the guts to remove Dhoni as captain tells a lot about the red-tapism that exists in Indian cricket.

BCCI President N Srinivasan is known to back Dhoni even as the number of Dhoni-bashers swell, but it remains to be seen for how long he is going to spring to his defence after every Test defeat.

The need of the hour is to have a new captain and pass on the baton to somebody else with an eye for the future. But will BCCI crack the whip on Dhoni? To be honest, they have to toe such a line if they are keen to arrest this slide, which is assuming alarming proportions.

If BCCI shirks taking a tough stand, Dhoni should himself step down as Test captain and focus on ODIs and T20s – the formats in which he is a genuine match-winner. But knowing Dhoni, one can safely assume that such a thing will not happen.

Hockey India League: Punjab Warriors will be the team to beat!

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The inaugural Hockey India League auctions may not have generated as much buzz as was the case during the inaugural IPL in 2008. But even the staunchest critics of the HIL cannot deny the fact that the auctions – the first of its kind ever in the history of Indian hockey – have indeed grabbed eyeballs, thus injecting a ray of hope for the future of the sport in the country.

The auctions have ensured that all the franchise teams would stay competitive in the much-talked-about league starting January 17.

A quick glance at the auction list gives a fair picture of the depth of talent the Punjab Warriors has at its disposal.

The Warriors snapped up legendary Australian striker Jamie Dwyer – one of the six marquee players – for $60,000 (Rs 32.66 lakh).

A veteran of 286 internationals, Dwyer would have experienced Indian strikers SV Sunil, Shivendra Singh and Dharamvir Singh for company upfront along with Spanish forward Roger Padros and fellow Aussie Kieran Govers, who is also adept at firing home lethal drag-flicks penalty corners – something unusual for a player who plays either as a striker or as an attacking midfielder.

The Punjab outfit boasts of a robust midfield with the likes of Australians Simon Orchard and Rob Hammond, Argentinean Lucas Rey and Indian youngster Gurmail Singh in its ranks.

The side has a wealth of experience in defence with veteran Indian Ignace Tirkey and Aussie Mark Knowles (200 international caps), who would be ready to give rival forwards a tough time.

The purchase of Tirkey by the Punjab franchise for $31,000 (starting with a base price of $13,900) was on unexpected lines given the fact that he was axed from the national team after the disastrous London Olympics campaign. The side also features Australian drag-flicker Christopher Ciriello.

The Warriors have Jaap Stockmann – one of the world’s best goalkeepers – who would surely be a tough nut to crack. India’s London Olympics captain Bharat Chetri, who had an embarrassing time when he went unsold during the initial auctions and was bought by Punjab during the re-auctions, is most likely to be the second choice goalkeeper of the side if current form is anything to go by.

Besides Stockmann and Chetri, the side also features junior goalie Keshab Dutt.

The composition of the Punjab Warriors side definitely makes them one of the strong contenders for the inaugural HIL crown. Of course, there is another team, Delhi Wave Riders who appear to have the team to seriously challenge any team on any given day.

The Delhi franchise made the right noises by lapping up Indian captain Sardar Singh for $78,000. Sardar would be working closely with fellow Indian Gurbaj Singh, Spain’s Andres Mir and Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan Junior in the midfield department.

The side also has a decent defence with German goalkeeper Nicolas Jacobi and Dutch national team reserve goal-tender Pirmin Blaak manning their citadel.

The Riders have two skillful drag-flickers – Dutch old warhorse Taeke Taekema and rapidly improving Indian Rupinder Pal Singh – who sprang a surprise when he was bought for $56,000 after starting with a base price of $9,250

If there is one area where the DWR can match the Punjab Warriors, it has to be their forwardline. Indian strikers Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Danish Mujtaba and sprightly Yuvraj Walmiki would look to form a lethal strike force with the likes of Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan Senior, German Oscar Deecke, New Zealand’s Simon Child and South Africa’s Lloyd Norris-Jones.

Like the Punjab Warriors and Delhi Wave Riders, Uttar Pradesh Wizards side has a well round solidity. The UP franchise bought the most capped international from Netherlands, Teun De Nooijer, for $66,000 as a marquee player. Nooijer would team up with fellow countryman Jeroen Hertzberger besides the three Indian strikers -Tushar Khandker, SK Uthappa and Nithin Thimmaiah.

The Sahara-owned franchise has a robust midfield in highly experienced Australian Eddie Ockenden, Netherlands’ Sander Baart and Spain’s David Alegre.

The Wizards has a formidable defence with the likes of Indian vice captain VR Raghunath and Australian Luke Doerner, who only recently retired from international hockey. Netherlands’ Marcel Balkestein is the third key man in the UPW’s defence.

Both Raghunath and Doerner are also handy with their drag-flicks, which should serve the side well.

Mumbai Magicians bought Indian marquee player Sandeep Singh for a base price of $27,800, which indicates that a player’s pricing has a lot to do with his current performance than on past laurels.

But the Indian drag-flicker would be assured of a better pay package after Australian defender Joel Caroll, was bought by the Mumbai franchise for $56,000 and as a marquee player, Sandeep will be getting 15% more than the Australian.

The Mumbai outfit seems to have focused more on tightening its defence. The team bought two current Indian goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and PT Rao along with Pakistan’s Imran Butt.

Besides Sandeep and Caroll, their backline features Spanish fullback Sergi Enrique and Australian Mathew Swann.

The Magicians has as many as three Pakistan midfielders – Mahmood Rashid, Fareed Ahmed and Mohammad Tousiq and Australian Matthew Butturini.

The forwardline of the Magicians seems to be bereft of quality. Save for Australian Glenn Turner and Indians Sarvanjit Singh and Chinglensana Singh, the team lacks experience, which could well pan out to be their weakling.

It’s pretty clear that a lot will depend on how Glenn Turner performs; he would be expected to shoulder massive responsibility upfront.

Ranchi Rhinos snapped up marquee player and German national team captain Moritz Fuertse for $75,500. The Rhinos appears to have a strong midfield department comprising Fuertse, South Africa’s Austin Smith, England’s Ashley Jackson and three nippy Indians – Manpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra and Kothajit Singh.

The RR has experienced Dutch forward Floris Evers, Pakistan’s Shafqat Rasool and New Zealand’s Nick Wilson and all the three foreign players would be expected to share a huge chunk of the goal scoring responsibilities.

The defence is short on experience and the team’s fortunes will hinge a lot on the experience of Australia’s Fergus Kavanagh, Pakistan’s Mohammad Irfan and South African Justin Reid Ross, who also does a decent job with his drag-flicks – a defence which will be manned by talented Indian junior goalkeeper Sushant Tirkey.

Every franchise has big names who can turn the match on their head and it is that quality which should make the Hockey India League a cracker of a contest.

We all know what Sardar Singh, Jamie Dwyer, Teun De Nooijer and Moritz Fuertse can do with a hockey stick! It could either be a match-clinching goal or a killer pass or even an out of the ordinary save in defence.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Champions Trophy starting point for us, says Indian hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

He was supposed to be the first choice goalkeeper for India at the 34th FIH Champions Trophy in Melbourne, but a hamstring injury sustained in the preceding Lanco Super Series game against Australia saw PR Sreejesh’s campaign in the elite tournament end even before it started.

Sreejesh’s injury-induced withdrawal paved the way for reserve goalkeeper PT Rao to make his international debut. And what a performance the 34-year-old Services goalie dished out at the premier tournament – a performance which made all and sundry sit up and take notice of him.

Sreejesh, who is ten years younger than Rao, revealed how his injury led to his pullout first from the Lanco Super Series and later the Champions Trophy. “I suffered a hamstring injury in the Lanco Super Series match against Australia. I played that match for about sixty minutes and it was then that I suffered the hamstring injury, and Rao played the last ten minutes and subsequently in the other matches of that event,” Sreejesh told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

Sreejesh regrets his injury-induced pullout but is very happy to see his replacement pull his weight. “Injuries are part and parcel of a sportsperson’s life. There is nothing much you can do about it. I’m really happy for PT Rao – he was simply superb in the Champions Trophy,” he quipped.

The Kerala lad was full of praise for Rao’s presence in the side. “Rao is a great team member. He is funny as well and has a great sense of humor. He gels well with the team members and never gives the impression that he is a senior player in the side.”

Rao’s stellar show in Melbourne has only cranked up competition in the Indian goalkeeping department. London Olympics captain Bharat Chetri is out of the side, while Sushant Tirkey – named the best goalkeeper in the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup – was in Australia as a cover for the injured Sreejesh.

Sreejesh feels that healthy competition is good for the team. “Healthy competition is great for the side, Indian hockey will benefit from this, what it does, it keeps everyone on their toes and ensures no one can get complacent. Even if I don’t perform, I will be out of the side,” he puts things in perspective.

The talented goalkeeper believes India’s fourth place finish at the Champions Trophy should serve as a nice platform to kickstart the revival journey of Indian hockey. “We should see this performance as a starting point for us –a platform from where we can build our side for the 2016 Rio Olympics which is our main target,” he opines.

Sreejesh reckons the Champions Trophy stint will do a world of good to the youngsters. “Ours was a pretty young side. I think it was a good exposure for the youngsters, especially those who made their international debut,” he observed.

He is confident of being fit for the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy beginning in Doha from December 20. “At the moment, I’m not doing any training, only gym work. I will be assess my fitness in Patiala by undergoing a fitness test. I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he exuded hope.

The Indian team’s backline put up an outstanding display at the Champions Trophy. Sreejesh was mighty impressed as well. “Our defence did a fantastic job in the Champions Trophy. The boys had worked really hard at the camp and it showed in our effort in Melbourne,” he added.

Sreejesh was the hero in the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy last year, where he effected two brilliant saves in the penalty shootout of the final game against Pakistan, which India won 4-2. “Any win against Pakistan is hugely satisfying. My performance in that final match helped to establish myself in the national side. It’s like an once-in-a-lifetime thing for me,” he recalls.

How does he assess India’s chances at the 2012 Asian Champions Trophy. “We have the team that can defend the title. We are positive about a fine display,” he sings an upbeat tone.

Does he harbor disappointments over missing a bronze medal at the Champions Trophy by a whisker? “Not really. A fourth place finish is a creditable achievement for India,” he signed off.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Indian hockey: Spirited Champions Trophy performance triggers a new beginning

This was piece was published in Sportskeeda

A pall of gloom descended on Indian hockey after their worst-ever performance at the Olympics last August. The sport was driven to such levels of despair in the country that hockey fans found it exceedingly difficult to see a rebound in our fortunes.

The 34th FIH Champions Trophy in Melbourne was seen as just another tournament where the team was taking part to make up the numbers, rather than causing any serious dents to the fortunes of the big teams.

But the State Netball and Hockey Centre – the venue of the elite tournament – saw an Indian team which was refreshingly different from the battered and struggling London Olympics side.

A team replete with young legs, the Sardar Singh-led side had to make a beginning somewhere, and the Champions Trophy was just the right platform to make a statement, which would arrest the dipping interest and popularity of the sport in India.

Of course, the team benefited from the fact that there were not much expectations to deliver, given the sagging morale of the team after the Olympics disaster and also this being India’s first tournament after the London games.

Chief coach Michael Nobbs had gone on record on the eve of the tournament, saying that he was going into the tournament without any expectations.

Probably, this ‘no expectation’ element had a big say in India’s performance in the tournament; the boys played more freely without the fear of losing and that helped in a big way as the blue shirts tried their best to write the revival chapter for Indian hockey.

Indian defence – the most criticized area of Indian hockey – put up a show which deserves lavish praise. Spearheaded by 34-year-old goalkeeper TP Rao, the Indian defence stood tall amid numerous opposition forays and came out on top on a consistent basis.

Rao, who made his international debut against England, capped off a superb tournament, effecting crucial saves in every match. If Rao was good at defying the opposition goal scoring opportunities from fast counter-attacks, he was also at ease nipping crosses from both flanks in the bud.

What’s more, he was outstanding during penalty corner situations. If he was in red hot form against New Zealand and Belgium, denying goals from PCs, he brought out his best against Australia against whom India lost 0-3 in the semifinal.

It was Rao’s brilliance at the goal-line that prevented Australia from scripting a big win. The manner in which the Aussies attacked in waves during the entire course of the match, India would have easily conceded seven-eight goals if Rao had not stood like a rock at the back.

The fact that Rao was supposed to be an understudy to regular goalkeeper PR Sreejesh for the Champions Trophy, and played in the premier tourney only because Sreejesh suffered a hamstring injury and was ruled out of the event, makes his achievement all the more remarkable.

Rao was ably complemented by the likes of Vokkaliga Raghunath, Rupinder Pal Singh and Manpreet Singh.

Raghunath shouldered more responsibility after his elevation as the team’s new vice captain. He has earned all his hockey fame for his power-packed drag-flicks but the 2012 Champions Trophy saw the emergence of Raghunath as a defender.

The way the burly fullback dispossessed opposition strikers with timely tackles is indeed heartening for Indian hockey.

Rupinder Pal Singh – another talented drag-flicker – also dished out a robust performance at the back in the absence of experienced guys like Sandeep Singh and Ignace Tirkey. Both Raghunath and Rupinder were also able to outsmart rival players with their mascular physique.

Manpreet Singh may not be as heavily built as Raghunath or Rupinder, but he turned in a stout display to announce himself as one of the mainstays of India’s defence. His way of throwing his body behind the ball drew copious praise from various quarters.

Captain Sardar Singh manned the midfield with aplomb, never missing out on an opportunity to rescue the defence or make overlapping runs upfront.

The likes of Kothajit Singh and Birendra Lakra performed the support cast roles near perfectly. Rookie Gurmail Singh looked promising as well.

The trapping and ball distribution of our midfielders was much better than what one saw at the London Olympics.

Although there is enough room for improvement in this area, the fact that corrective measures have been undertaken to address this aspect augurs well for India.

The Indian forward-line were roundly flayed at London for struggling to create scoring chances and also for their poor finishing. At Melbourne, our finishing did show signs of improvement, though we have a long way to go before we can be world beaters.

Gurwinder Singh Chandi had a great tournament, proving to be India’s livewire upfront, but one would not be surprised if he is disappointed with his performance in the knockout phase.

A top striker is one who creates chances and scores against top teams in big-ticket matches, and I’m sure Gurwinder would be working to improve in this area.

SV Sunil was a big disappointment at Melbourne. After his poor show at London, one thought Sunil would bring some variety to his game but there was nothing much on offer.

Save for his now famous ‘burst of speed’ Sunil has struggled to outmaneuver rival defenders and not just that, his wayward finishing is becoming hugely frustrating for all of us.

The likes of Nitin Thimmaiah  and Yuvraj Walmikip also impressed from whatever opportunities they got. Akashdeep Singh seemed to be have got overawed by the big occasion and hopefully this exposure will serve him well for the future.

Others like Dharamvir Singh and SK Uthappa had a quiet Champions Trophy and would hopefully make the most of this big tournament exposure and come out all guns blazing in the future tournaments.

India’s fourth place finish at the Champions Trophy – their best effort since 1982 – should be greeted with excitement and introspection.

One must savour the effort put in by the boys, but one must also not lose focus on the improvement areas as that is something which is going to take Indian hockey forward, riding on the spirited showing in the Champions Trophy.

And yes, a new beginning has been made after the London Olympics catastrophe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

3rd Kabaddi WC: Indian origin players in foreign teams the answer to giving kabaddi a global feel?

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The organizers of the 3rd World Cup Kabaddi (circle style) Championship have spared no effort in tom-toming about how they have succeeded in giving Kabaddi a global touch by attracting the maximum number of countries (16 for men and 7 for women) for this year’s tournament.

In fact, the organizers have gone on record saying that 10 participating countries do not feature a single player of Indian origin. Well, no one is disputing that but one is wondering whether the fair sprinkling of Indian-origin players in various foreign teams is the answer toward putting kabaddi on a global pedestal.

Look at the Denmark men’s kabaddi team for the 2012 World Cup – it comprises of seven Denmark-based players and seven Punjabi NRIs. The team features players who took up kabaddi after excelling in sporting disciplines such as kick-boxing, rugby and taekwando. Even the Kenyan men’s kabaddi team is made up of local Punjabis, who have been into sport disciplines such as rugby and taekwondo.

Sierra Leone men’s kabaddi team consists of Punjabis settled in Leone, who were involved in sports like boxing, weightlifting, volleyball and body building. Significantly, Denmark women’s kabaddi team is the only woman team at this World Cup to feature all players of Danish origin with not even a single player of Indian origin. Interestingly, the Danish women picked up the sport by watching it on YouTube, which is seen more of a recreational activity for sportspersons. Not just the players, even some of the foreign teams have Indian coaches, which doesn’t surprise us at all given India’s legacy in kabaddi.

Manjinder Singh Brar – a former kabaddi player originally hailing from the Moga district in Punjab – is the coach of the Kenya’s men kabaddi team. In fact, the Kenyan team’s participation in the 3rd World Cup was taken to its logical end after the Punjab Sport Department asked Manjinder to visit Kenya and form a team for the marquee event – something he succeeded in carrying out.

Denmark men’s and women’s kabaddi teams are playing in the 3rd World Cup under the tutelage of their Punjabi coach Prabhjit Singh. Even the Scotland men’s kabaddi team, who hogged all the spotlight appearing in their traditional kilts at the opening ceremony, has an Indian origin coach in Prem Singh, whose team comprises players who play martial arts and rugby. Sierra Leone is another team to have an Indian origin coach in Gurmail Singh Dirbha.

Startlingly, some of the foreign teams hardly have hardly had adequate time to prepare for a tournament as big as the World Cup, which throws a caustic question: were the organizers only keen on having maximum participants as possible and whether focus on ‘quality’ was the last thing on their mind? We are not suggesting anything but we do get a ‘reality’ picture.

Hear this: the Kenyan team had absolutely no idea about the 3rd World Cup Kabaddi happening in India say about four weeks before its start.  The team was trained in circle style kabaddi for just 26 days by NRI coach Manjinder Singh Brar before they competed in the World Cup. It was also a similar tale for the Sierra Leone kabaddi team. The team was formed around six weeks before the start of the 3rd World Cup Kabaddi Championship and was trained in circle style kabaddi by Indian coach Gurmail Singh.

Such short notice intimation and short duration camps are an indication that the organizers were hell-bent on giving the event a ‘competitive’ feel by pulling in as many teams as possible, putting ‘quality’ on the back-burner. Of course, the organizers deserve a pat on the back for conducting such a mega event with a noble intention to spread the sport across the globe, but uncomfortable questions will always be asked whether the ‘quality’ factor was compromised. The organizers have announced an attractive ‘appearance money’ for all the foreign teams, which could also be a big factor in ‘quality’ slipping out of the window.

An appearance fee of Rs 15 lakhs was announced for teams from far away places like Argentina, Canada, USA, while an appearance fee of Rs 10 lakh was announced for the rest of the participating teams. One is not trying to find fault with the organizers for doling out an attractive appearance fee, but one wants to know if it played a part in the tournament losing out on the competitive flavor.

The slew of Indian-origin players in various foreign teams and short notice intimation for an event as big as the World Cup will be issues that will be discussed in various quarters, but the moot point is: is it going to help the sport of Kabaddi gain a global status, which can pave the way for its inclusion in the Olympics?

Monday, December 10, 2012

We can achieve hat-trick of World Cup wins: Indian kabaddi captain Sukhbir Singh Sarawan

This piece was published on Sportskeeda

There is always an aura of invincibility surrounding the Indian men’s Kabaddi team. This stems from India’s magnificent track record – the team has developed a habit of winning major tournaments.

And as the 3rd World Cup Kabaddi (circle style) Championship reaches the business end, the reigning champions are once again bandied about as the title favourites.

The unbridled confidence of the team only reflects the immense self-belief the men have gained over the years, having won almost all major tournaments (six times Asian Games gold medalists and four World Cup titles), winning them as if the winning trophy is their fiefdom.

A chat with Indian Kabaddi captain Sukhbir Singh Sarawan only lends credence to it. “We have a strong team for this year’s World Cup. There is no reason why we cannot cap off a hat-trick of World Cup wins this time around,” an upbeat Sukhbir told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

Sukhbir, who led India to the 2011 World Cup Kabaddi (circle style) final triumph over Canada, conceded that the competition at the World Cup is getting stiffer with each passing year. “It’s not that there is no competition, and we are winning matches on a platter. This year sixteen teams are participating, which effectively means more competition since it would be wrong to think that many nations are taking part only to make up the numbers,” the Indian captain puts things in perspective.

Sukhbir was also part of the Indian team, which won the 2010 World Cup Kabaddi title (circle style) when they outplayed arch-rivals Pakistan 58-24 in the final. Sukhbir was not the captain on that occasion as the team was led by Mangat Singh Mangi. “It was not a hard-fought contest as we rode roughshod over Pakistan. Pakistan are our traditional rivals and any win against them in any sport gives us extra joy, that too in our own backyard,” he gushes.

The Indian captain said his team has worked hard at the pre-World Cup camp and the boys are fit as a fiddle. “We had a 15-day camp at Bhatinda, where we worked strenuously on our fitness since it is a key ingredient to achieving success. We also worked on our raiding techniques as well as on our stopping strategies and agility,” he quipped.

The determination to bag the World Cup would be even more for the Indians, especially after the runners-up finish to Pakistan in the 2nd Asia Cup Kabaddi Championship held in Lahore this November. Pakistan won the crown when India forfeited the match with the hosts leading 40-31, following a technical objection by the men in green.

“The second-best finish was a bit of a setback for us. We forfeited the match because of a technical objection raised by Pakistan. We have put that disappointment (of finishing runners-up) behind us and are now itching to win the World Cup for the third time on the trot,” said a high-on-confidence Sukhbir.

Kabaddi has spread its wings over the years. Many new countries are not only taking up the sport but have also started to appear competitive. Teams like Pakistan and Iran have shown that they can upstage any team on any given day. Sukhbir believes this bodes well for the sport. “Iran are a strong side, we saw that in the 2nd Asia Cup in Lahore, Pakistan is another vastly improving side. We just can’t take any team lightly, if we do it will be at our own peril. Kabaddi as a sport would be better off with healthy competition,” he brushes aside lingering thoughts of complacency creeping into their game.

The 2011 Kabaddi World Cup had reared its ugly head for the manner in which many players were tested positive for taking performance-enhancing drugs. Sukhbir says his team has no issues with that. “We are here to win the World Cup, I don’t want to say anything on doping.”

There is a lot of talk about kabaddi being included as an Olympic sport. What’s his take? “Well, Kabbadi will get a big boost if it is included in the Olympics. I hope that day comes sooner than later,” he signed off.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Must improve penalty corner conversions, says Indian women's hockey team captain Ritu Rani

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Shahbad is a soporific, nondescript town, tucked away 75 kms from Chandigarh. Over the years, the city has shot into prominence for churning out talented women hockey players, who have gone on to wear the blue Indian jersey with pride and distinction.

Indian women’s hockey team captain Ritu Rani is another talented women’s hockey player to emerge from the Shahbad stable.

Ritu lends all-round solidity to the Indian women’s hockey team, almost like Sardar Singh does in the Indian men’s team. She scores goals for her side upfront, controls the midfield and also rushes back to assist the defence whenever required.

At 22, Ritu is almost seems like a veteran having made her senior international debut as a 16-year-old at the 2006 Women’s World Cup held in Madrid (Spain)

But it wasn’t a memorable tournament for India as they finished eleventh in that marquee event. But Ritu saw that maiden opportunity as a huge learning curve. “I was inexperienced at that time but playing in a major tournament like the World Cup gave me a lot of confidence as I got to know how hockey is at the highest level,” Ritu told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview hours before leaving for New Zealand to play in a six-match Test series beginning Saturday.

Ritu, who did her schooling at the Shahbad-based Sri Guru Nanak Dev Sr. Higher Secondary School, acknowledges how Shahbad has been providing a decent supply line to the Indian women’s hockey team. “Shahbad has produced so many talented players over the years. Girls here have a big passion for hockey, which shows in the way Shahbad players make it to the national side. In fact, during the 2009 Champions Challenge II tournament held in Kazan, Russia, five Shahbad girls were playing for India – Surinder (Kaur), Rani (Rampal), Jasdip (Kaur), Joydeep (Kaur) and yours truly,” she said candidly.

The seasoned midfielder quickly cuts to the present and talks about the team’s preparation for the six-match Test series in New Zealand. The tour of New Zealand would serve as a big opportunity for the Indian girls to brace themselves up for the FIH World League Round II tournament to be held in India next year. “We have worked hard at our camp in Bhopal. We have a good mix of youth and experience and are bullish about giving a good account of themselves in the Test series,” Ritu exuded hope.

Ritu, who has made 137 international appearance and scored 50 international goals, talked about the way the team has trained under new Australian coach Neil Hawgood. “Earlier, we used to train for long hours, but now our training is a short duration affair but very intense, which takes a lot out of us. We are enjoying the training sessions under Neil Hawgood. I think his presence will surely make a difference,” she lavished praise on the Australian.

The Haryana girl believes the presence of another Australian Dr. Ben Dascombe as the team’s exercise physiologist is doing a lot of good to the players’ fitness. “Our fitness levels have improved after he joined us. There is still room for more improvement,” she quipped.

The Indian women’s team captain painted a bright picture on the team’s improvement areas. “Earlier, we used to struggle to score field goals, but that has changed now. We have improved a lot in this area and are now scoring field goals on a more consistent basis which augurs well for us.”

Penalty corner conversion has traditionally been a major weakling for the Indian women’s team. So how is this department shaping up? “We have to improve our penalty corner conversions. We have drag-flicker Jaspreet Kaur in our side, she is shaping up well. Hope she serves us well, said Ritu whose role model is Surinder Kaur.

“Surinder Kaur has been my biggest inspiration. I have learnt a lot from her. She is always there to assist me with her inputs,” Ritu waxed eloquent on her.

Ritu led India at the Champions Challenge tournament in Dublin, Ireland where they finished seventh among eight teams. And after that Dublin disappointment, the team is now determined to put up a decent show in New Zealand.

“New Zealand play a fast-paced brand of hockey. We played against New Zealand in a four-nation double leg tournament in their own backyard earlier this year; we lost to them 1-2 in the first leg and then played out a 3-3 draw in the second leg. We would definitely be taking the positives from that tournament into this six-match Test series,” she signed off.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Need to be more consistent in pressure situations, says Indian shuttler Anand Pawar

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Anand Pawar is neither an old warhorse nor a rank novice. At 26, he is at that stage of his career, where a shuttler would hit peak form and look towards scaling new heights.

The Mumbai lad is in seventh heaven, fresh from recently annexing the Scottish International Challenge men’s singles crown.

Pawar – who was seeded 7th in the tournament – put it across 10th seeded Kazumasa Sakai of Japan 10-21, 21-11, 21-17 to corner glory.

Interestingly, Pawar, who jumped eight places in World Badminton Federation rankings to be placed at 47th following the recent triumph, had won the 2010 Scottish International tournament singles title.

The Air India employee – son of former India badminton great Uday Pawar – speaks in an exclusive interview.

First of all, heartiest congratulations on winning the Scottish International Challenge men’s singles crown. How do you assess your victory?
Thank you very much. It feels great to win the Scottish International crown for the second time. I wasn’t at my best in the final match against Sakai. I lost the opening game but managed to get my game together in time, and pocket the next two games and the title.

You seem to have a love affair with the Scottish International Challenge tournament. You had won the 2010 edition of the same tournament as well. How would you rate this win and that 2010 win?
Well, I’ve been playing in this tournament since 2007. I have always felt very comfortable playing at this tournament; I reached the semi finals in 2009, I won the 2010 edition and now this year. The win in 2010 was less tougher taking the entire field into consideration, but in this 2012 edition I had to play two close matches, which made this recent victory tougher than the 2010 triumph. Also, the tournament was played at a new venue – the Emirates Arena – which is going to host the Badminton event at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The year 2012 has been a pretty decent year for you. You broke your singles title win drought after the French Open triumph in April this year, followed by a runners-up finish at the Dutch Open. What’s your take?
The win at the French International tournament and the runners-up finish at the Dutch International tournament were highly encouraging; I also entered the semifinals the week before the French Open, which was also a decent result. I had taken a four-week break from tournaments to work on my physical strength and endurance, which worked well for me. I also defeated the world no. 10 Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark in the semifinals of the Danish Club League during the period when I took a break from competitive action. I really felt good beating a higher ranked shuttler like Jorgensen, so the hard work put in training definitely paid off.

You have won seven international titles (singles) so far. Which title win has been the most satisfying so far?
The 2008 Austrian International – my first-ever international title, and the win at this year’s Scottish International have been the most satisfying wins for me.

What areas you think are your strengths and the ones you need to work on?
I think I have a pretty good all-round, offensive game but I need to get more consistency in my shots, especially during a tight situation when the scores are level or the pressure is high. With the way the modern game is played, you have to stay extremely fit to compete with the best in the world and beat them.

Your father (Uday Pawar) and mother (Sujata Pawar) represented the country. Wasn’t picking up the badminton racquet very easy for you, like a duck taking to water?
Obviously, my parents being involved with the sport has been a main factor in me taking up badminton. But they never forced me to play badminton and the decision to take it up professionally was left entirely up to me. My parents have always supported me through good times and bad, and I’m thankful to them for standing by my side throughout my career.

On the international stage, what would you like to achieve going forward?
Well, I have had many close three-setters with many of the top-10 players and lost most of them by one or two points; that’s something I would like to change, I  want to convert the close defeats into wins. I know fully well that I’m not far away from beating them but it takes an extra effort to beat the top-10 guys; I just have to put in the hard yards to prevail over them.

Who is your favourite men’s and women’s singles player?
China’s Lin Dan is my favourite men’s singles player; in the women’s singles I admire Saina Nehwal for the fearless way she plays and what she has achieved over the last few years.

You had achieved a career-high singles ranking of 38. Do you think you deserve to be in the top-20? Is that your next logical target now that you are placed at 47th currently?
I sustained a major injury in 2009 when I had reached my highest ranking. The injury forced a long absence from action, and I had to start from scratch, which made things tougher. I had suffered another major ligament tear in 2011, which put the brakes on my progress for a few months. But things are shaping up well now; I’m sure my ranking will improve if I keep playing well and deliver good results.

Your dad Uday Pawar played for the country with distinction. What pep talk you get from him in terms of match tactics and your badminton career?
My father has been playing the biggest role in shaping up my badminton career. He has been my coach ever since I started playing the game and is involved in all my planning, whether playing in tournaments or planning for a match or for my daily training when I’m back home in Mumbai at the Uday Pawar Badminton Academy at the Goregaon Sports Club.

What other things you like to do when you are not playing badminton?
I like to unwind by watching movies and tv shows when I’m not playing. I watch a lot of movies on my laptop. I’m also a big foodie, I love going out to eat.

Tell us a bit about your personal life? Are you single or do you have any marriage plans on the cards in the future?
Tough question! Well, I’m not single but there are no marriage plans on the cards right now (grins).
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Monday, December 3, 2012

I-League's top goal scorer Ranty Martins says India deserves to be ranked within 100-110 range

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Any discussion on the lethal strikers of the I-League cannot miss the name of Ranty Martins Suleye. That’s the kind of deep imprint he has left on the Indian football league with his goal-poaching ways, invariably leaving defenders in the opposition citadel groping for answers.

The 26-year-old Nigerian has indeed set goal-scoring benchmarks for other strikers in the I-league. The Lagos-born hitman rode a wave of prolific form last season, not only propelling Dempo Sports Club to the I-League title but also emerging from the tournament as the highest goal scorer (32 goals).

Martins spent eight seasons at Dempo before signing up for Prayag United. It’s as if he has brought his goal-scoring boots from Goa to Kolkata. He slammed the first hat-trick of the 2012-13 I-League season against Air India to serve a stern warning to his opponents.

The stint with Prayag is giving him an opportunity to enhance his goal-scoring reputation he built in Goa while playing for Dempo. “I had a great time at Dempo. The fact that I was able to serve the team’s needs gave me a huge amount of satisfaction. At Prayag, I have settled down nicely. In Goa, the crowds were less noisy, while Kolkata it’s a lot more boisterous; Kolkatans love their football, not to say Goans don’t,” Martins told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

Prayag would be hoping that the Midas touch Martins lent to Dempo’s fortunes in last season’s I-league would be replicated for the Kolkata-based club. “We have a strong outfit. We are fourth in the points table. Although any team can win on any given day, I’m upbeat about our I-League-winning chances. Not just Prayag, East Bengal, Dempo, Churchill Brothers and Mohun Bagan are all strong title contenders,” he pours out his thoughts.

Martins has an uncanny knack of setting up big wins for his team. This season, he pumped in seven goals in Prayag’s 10-1 win over United Sikkim Football Club this season. Last season, he struck seven goals in Dempo’s 14-0 win over Air India, which, till date remains the highest winning margin in I-League. Quiz him about his goal-scoring prowess and pat comes a humble response. “It’s all about teamwork. I don’t think I would have succeeded in scoring without the support of my teammates.”

The deadly striker, however, has fond memories of the recent big win over United Sikkim. “I don’t think any team can surpass that winning margin. Take it from me,” he says confidently, flashing a grin.

There is a growing perception that the presence of foreign players, especially substandard ones save for a few, hasn’t really helped in improving the standard of Indian football. But Martins begs to differ. “I don’t think so. The quality of Indian football when I first played here in the 2004-05 season was not that great. But that is not the case now as Indian football has shown marked improvement. Look at guys like Manandeep Singh and Joaquim Abranches, they are promising guys, which shows local talent is definitely coming up,” he quips.

The Nigerian believes the current national football team is better than its current FIFA ranking suggests. “There are a lot of countries where the standard of football is lower than that of India and yet they are ahead of India because they regularly play international friendlies on FIFA match days,” he reasons.

Martins has no doubts that India deserves a much higher FIFA ranking. “They must play as many international friendlies as possible on FIFA match days. In my book, India should be ranked in the 100-110 range,” he remarked.

Martins has achieved so much in India as far as club football is concerned. What about a desire to wear the Nigerian national jersey? “I really want to play for Nigeria. I would be delighted to perform wearing the green jersey,” he says, swelling with pride.

Martins agrees that a Nigerian national call-up would be a difficult proposition for him given the fact that he plays club football in India. “The standard of Indian football is improving all the time. But if the powers-that-be are going to set that (playing in India) as a yardstick for not picking me in the national side, then I really don’t have to say anything.”

Martins is keeping his options open about plying his football skills in Europe. “I’m happy playing for Prayag for now. If at all I want to move to Europe it has to be a big club, otherwise there is no point making a switch,” he observed.

Last and the not leash, there is one thing Martins hasn’t picked up despite his pretty long stay in India. It is his Hindi.“Mate, haven’t picked up much. thoda thoda (little little),” he fired a parting shot.

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