Sunday, January 20, 2013

Indian women's football team have the potential to break into top-30, says Indian chief national coach Anadi Barua

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Women’s football in India went through a bit of a low-profile phase after the national team retained the second SAFF Football Championship crown in Colombo last September.

Four months after the SAFF glory, the Indian eves are once again making the right noises, pulling off a historic solitary goal win over the much fancied Netherlands side (Dutch hold a FIFA world ranking of 14) at the Father Agnel Sports Complex in Navi Mumbai on Sunday. This win levelled the two-match exhibition series after India went down fighting 0-2 in the first tie in Kolhapur.

The much-cherished win over the Netherlands, which came on the back of Ashalata Devi’s early goal, bodes well for women’s football, where the country never misses out on an opportunity to impress.

Besides the memorable win on Sunday, what was heartening to see was that the Indian girls never got overawed by the prospect of facing a top soccer side like Netherlands and stayed competitive for most part of those two matches.

Undoubtedly, Indian women’s team chief coach Anadi Barua is on cloud nine. “I don’t think anyone would have given us a chance to beat the Netherlands. This is win is significant for women’s football in India. Our girls were just fantastic. I’m so proud of my girls,” a seemingly excited Anadi told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

The dogged performance of the Indian women’s football team in both the matches left Anadi talking extremely highly about his team. “We fought hard in both the games. We maintained decent possession and of course, we were even more sharp than we were in Kolhapur. Obviously, it was never going to be a walk in the park for us as Netherlands are a formidable side. It was a huge learning curve for the girls. There were a lot of positives we can take from these two matches,” Anadi says candidly.

Anadi took charge of the national women’s team only a few weeks back. In fact, the seven-day camp held in Kolhapur was all he had to get the best out of the team for the two exhibition ties. “I’m happy to guide the girls. They are a disciplined lot; they have got the right attitude to excel and more importantly, they’re very focused on what they want to do on the maidan. I’m saying this from the (experience of) seven-odd days I have spent with the team,” he reveals.

The former India midfielder, who donned the national colours in the 1986 Nehru Cup in Thiruvananthapuram, feels that the Indian team needs to work on their goal-scoring abilities. “Our girls lack the goal-scoring skills. In football, you can’t win matches if you don’t score goals. If our girls work on this area, we can give a lot of sides a run for their money,” Anadi puts things in perspective.

There is a general feeling that the Indian women’s team does not play enough international matches or tournaments. Does he think that such a scenario would prove detrimental to the growth of women’s football? “I agree. Our girls need more international exposure. They have to play more international tournaments against quality sides – we should be looking at playing at least 20 internationals a year. I remember in the late seventies, the Thailand, Sweden and England eves came to India and played around 15 matches (all combined). AIFF has done a great thing by arranging these two matches against the Netherlands. I’m sure there will be more to come,” the man, who was awarded the best player in the 1980 Subroto Cup, exudes optimism.

Anadi, who played for various Delhi clubs like Simla Youngs, Indian Nationals, Moonlight and SBI in a career spanning nearly 16 years (1978-1994), believes regular participation in international tournaments can go a long way in improving India’s world ranking. “We can surely climb up the ranking ladder if we regularly feature in international matches. Indian eves have the potential to be in the top-30 if not more,” he was paints a positive picture.

The Indian women team’s chief coach, who obtained a FIFA diploma from Brazil in 1995, stresses the need for the women’s team to play with various men’s teams at the domestic level in order to sharpen their match competitiveness. “Girls should play with the boys under-17 team or even the senior men’s team. It will do a lot of good to their self-confidence and bring about improvement in their game. They can also play some I-League teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal among others,” he explains.

The former Indian footballer, who represented Delhi for seven years in Santosh Trophy was mighty impressed with the turnout in both the games. “Around 20,000 spectators were watching the match in Kolhapur and another 5,000 were outside the stadium. Another 4,000 watched the second match in Navi Mumbai. It is great to see so much interest for women’s football.”

Anadi was asked to assume charge of the national women’s team for the two exhibition international ties against the Netherlands. Is he is looking at a long-term stint in the hot seat? “I was asked to take over as coach of the team for these two matches and I’m trying my best for the team. It’s an honour to be the coach of the national team. I’m not thinking too much about the future,” he added.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

HIL will help to unearth hiddent talents, says Ranchi Rhinos midfielder Birendra Lakra

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
He is one of the quietest performers in the Indian hockey team. He is the coy, reticent kind, who invariably lets his hockey stick do the talking during the 70 minutes of play. Meet India’s talented midfielder Birendra Lakra, who oozes hope of shouldering the midfield responsibilities in the national team.

The 22-year-old hails from a nondescript hamlet – Lachhra in Sundargarh district in Odisha – a district which has produced the likes of Dilip Tirkey and Ignace Tirkey, and often serves as the supply line for the national team.

Interestingly, there are as many as eight Odisha players featuring in the Hero Hockey India League and all of them are from the Sundargarh district. Five of them, including Birendra, were snapped up by Ranchi Rhinos (Amit Rohidas, Susanta Tirkey, Aman Miraz Tirkey and Stalin Victor Minz). Two others – Bipin Kerketa will turn out for Delhi Waveriders and Suresh Tappo will play for Mumbai Magicians.

Last six months have been a mixed bag for Indian hockey. The disappointing Olympics journey was atoned for to some extent by an expected but encouraging fourth-place finish in the FIH 34th Champions Trophy and a runners-up finish in the Asian Champions Trophy.

For any upcoming player, exposure to major tournaments is the key and Birendra is richer in experience. “After the disappointment in the Olympics, we did well in the Melbourne and Doha tournaments. On the personal front, I’m happy with my game; there has been improvement in my speed and trapping in the last twelve months or so,” he remarked.

Having done his bit for the national team, Birendra is keyed up to put up a good show in the HIL for Ranchi Rhinos. “We have a lot of talented youngsters in our side. Our foreign players also have plenty of experience. Hopefully, we will come up with a good showing.”

Birendra is still famously remembered for his reverse flick goal against France in the final of the Olympic qualifier last year.

A product of Rourkela Steel Plant’s SAIL Hockey Academy, Birendra is putting in all the hard yards at Ranchi Rhinos’ training sessions. “Our training sessions have come off well. We practice two hours from 9 am to 11 am in the morning and from 4 pm to 6:30 pm in the afternoon besides one hour of gym training. It’s a nice experience for our youngsters to train together with our foreign players,” he said.

There seems to be a lot of talking about teams like Delhi Waveriders and Jaypee Punjab Warriors, possessing enough firepower and being bandied about as the red-hot favourites. Birendra feels that it would all boil down to which team plays good hockey on a particular day. “People may say this team is the favourite and this team is not. In my book, all five teams are evenly balanced. The team which plays good hockey consistently will win the league,” opines Birendra who is still famously remembered for his reverse flick goal against France in the final of the Olympic qualifier last year.

The lanky Odisha lad, who has made 44 international appearances and scored five goals for India, has no doubts that HIL would throw up talented youngsters. “Look, there are a lot of talented youngsters who do not make it to the national camp. These youngsters often go unnoticed. HIL would be a massive opportunity for these young turks to showcase their wares and catch the attention of the selectors,” he touched a realistic point.

Hockey runs in the family. Birendra’s elder brother Bimal also played for India. His sister Asunta Lakra also played for the Indian women’s hockey team. “All three of us played in the same position – as a midfielder,” he said, buzzing with excitement.

Hockey is not the only sport Birendra plays. “I play football during my spare time. I enjoy playing the sport when I’m not playing hockey, which is my first love,” quipped Birendra who sees former India captain Dilip Tirkey as his role model.

“Dilip bhai is one player I look up to. I met him at a church during the New Year. We do discuss about hockey among other things when we catch up,” revealed the youngster whose killer cross was the one from which Nitin Thimmiaah scored the match-clincher against Belgium in the quarterfinals of the 34th FIH Champions Trophy.

Birendra, who honed his skills initially under coaches Peter Tirkey and Herman Lakra and later under Rajukant Saini, is happy to see Ranchi host the semifinals and the final of the Hero Hockey India League. “One thing is for sure; we would get a full house for all our matches held in Ranchi. People here have huge passion for hockey. Of course, we would enjoy the home advantage if we make it to the last-four stage,” the Indian right-half concluded.

No HIL team is a favourite, says Indian hockey team vice captain Vokkaliga Raghunath

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
Having emerged out of the shadows of senior players like Sandeep Singh and Ignace Tirkey with stellar performances in the 34th Champions Trophy and the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy, Indian hockey team vice-captain Vokkaliga Raghunath is now bracing up to do the same for Uttar Pradesh Wizards in the inaugural Hockey India League.

The much-hyped league would be a great opportunity for the strapping 25-year-old to maintain his recent consistent run and play a big role in helping the Sahara India Pariwar-owned Lucknow franchise to corner glory. “It will be great fun playing with and against some of the world’s best players. The competitive element will always be there in every match, but it is not often that you get a chance to play with the likes of Teun De Nooijer, who is a big name in world hockey, Jeroen Hertzberger, Eddie Ockenden  and Sander Baart. I’m really keyed up to fare well in the HIL and help my team go the distance,” Raghunath said in an exclusive interview.

All the five teams are going through their paces at their training camps, which have grabbed notice for its short duration. Raghunath doesn’t feel that a training camp for a week or so should be inadequate preparation for the teams. “Look, most of the players are intelligent and smart enough to quickly adjust within the given time-frame. I really don’t think that there should be any concerns about the short duration of the camps. It should work out fine with all teams,” he pointed out.

The confabulation veered towards the league’s strong contenders and Raghunath  believed that the tournament is split wide open. “It’s hard to pick a favourite. In my opinion, no team is a favourite, any team can be beaten on any given day. It all boils down to a team playing good hockey on a particular day.”

The Indian drag-flicker, who has played 132 internationals and scored 94 goals, is fully convinced that the HIL would do a world of good to Indian hockey. “Batraji (Narinder) has worked really hard to get this league going in India, hats off to him. Hockey players are well taken care of (paid well for the league) and I’m confident that more youngsters would take to hockey.”

2012 International Super Series - Day 2 Uttar Pradesh Wizards will be coached by legendary coach Roelant Oltmans, who guided the Dutch national team to 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold and 1998 World Cup glory in Utrecht. And like many others, Raghunath is excited about getting tips from him. “Oltmans is a great coach. I will be looking to benefit from his inputs. It will be help me to emerge as a better defender in future,” the Coorg lad opined.

Indeed, Raghunath’s defending skills have drawn copious praise from various quarters in the last two international tournaments in Melbourne and Doha. “A year back, I was not a good defender, I was only a drag-flicker who could score goals from penalty corners. I have worked on my defending skills over the last few months and I think it is beginning to show in my performance. I’m a better defender now and feel confident about tackling marauding forwards as well defending short corners,” the Indian Oil Corporation officer said with a tinge of confidence.

Indian hockey team is used to facing strong, well built players from Europe and Australia. Now India have the two burly Rs in their defence – Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, and can afford to give a dose of their own medicine (tough body play) to the opponents. “Hockey has changed a lot over the years. It has become more physical with so much of body play involved. You have to be at your best physically at all times and be ready to give everything for your team for 70 minutes. It’s good that India have well built players in the side. Trainer Jason Conrath is working hard with the boys,” he quipped.

Has the mantle of vice-captaincy brought extra responsibility on his broad shoulders? “I’m always looking to improve as a player. Of course, vice-captaincy is a responsibility I’m looking to handle to the best of my ability. As a player, I don’t just think of myself only as a defender, I’m ready to play in any position, even upfront if needed,” he puts forth his views.

The elevation of Raghunath as vice-captain coincided with the naming of Sardar Singh as the national team captain after Bharat Chetri led the London Olympics side. Raghunath is more than happy to be his deputy. “It’s a joy to have someone like Sardar Singh in the side. He leads from the front, he gels well with his team-mates, gives equal respect to every team member and always motivates them. He is one of the world’s best centre-halfs and is very down-to-earth as well. As a vice captain, I’m ready to give him whatever support he needs,” he lavished praise on his captain.

How does he assess chief coach Michael Nobbs? “The one thing I like about his is that he always remains calm. Players don’t feel pressurized by his presence. He explains to every player in a nice way. We owe a lot to him,” he observed.

There is a school of thought that Raghunath and Rupinder have made the comeback route of Sandeep Singh even harder. Raghunath backs the seasoned fullback to be in the national team sooner than later. “Sandeep Singh is an asset to any side. If he is in the team, we will have three drag-flickers in the side for 70 minutes, which will be a great thing for India. I’m missing his absence and have no doubts that he will be back in the side soon. Sandeep will be a bonus for us,” added the burly defender.

In fact, there is cut-throat competition in the Indian drag-flicker department with someone like Sandeep out of the side. Even talented 18-year-old Gurjinder Singh of WSH fame is also waiting in the wings and was even named as a standby for the national team probables for the first camp at Patiala after the London Olympics campaign. “Healthy competition is good for the side. It pushes every player to raise the performance bar and benefits the team immensely,” he fired a parting shot.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hockey India League will be a learning curve, says Indian hockey striker SV Sunil

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

‘Burst of speed’ is SV Sunil’s middle name. No one can question the fact that he is the fastest moving player in the current Indian team. Fast counter-attacks or blistering solo runs are synonymous with Sunil.

It is this attribute of his which makes him an exciting player to watch on the hockey turf. He can rattle any opposition with speed – remember the 2011 Champions Challenge tournament where he made the South Africans sweat and left them bemused with his acceleration, scoring two goals in India’s 7-4 rout – or even the India-Pakistan match at the 2012 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where he scored a splendid match-clincher in the dying moments with a diving effort.

Sunil knows that speed is a great weapon to have, but also realizes the fact that judicious use of speed is imperative if it has to benefit the team.

“I know speed is my forte and I have been able to trouble the opposition on many occasions. But I’ve been guilty of missing chances as well as I have not been able to provide the final thrust in an attacking move mainly because of my inability to combine with my team-mates. I need to slow down my pace a bit at times so that my team-mates can benefit from my moves. I’m working on it,” the Indian striker told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

The year 2012 may not have gone the way Sunil wanted – a disastrous London Olympics campaign and the FIH 34th Champions Trophy where he struggled with injury and form. But the Asian Champions Trophy in Doha towards the end of the year saw Sunil find his goal-scoring touch.

Hockey Olympic qualifier practice

In fact, the Indian team’s performance in the Champions Trophy and the Asian Champions Trophy left many of its ardent supporters pleasantly surprised. Sunil attributes the impressive performance to the induction of many youngsters in the side.

“Lot of youngsters were given a chance to play for the country, which was a big moment for them. These youngsters knew that they were included in the place in place of senior players; so the onus was on to perform and they exuded extra josh in both the tournaments,” the Coorg lad said matter-of-factly.

Sunil’s unbridled passion to play for the country can be gauged by the fact that he refused to return home when his dad passed away while he was donning the Indian colours at the 2009 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. How could he take such a strong decision tinged with emotion?

“My father wished that I earn a big name in hockey, so I thought if I could play and help my country win, he will be happy. So far, I’ve been able to achieve only 25% of what I desired – I’ve to achieve the rest 75%,” the 24-year old gangling striker observed.

Sunil, who has played 115 internationals and scored 47 goals, felt that the Hero Hockey India League would be a huge learning curve for him.

“You keep learning all the time. HIL would be a massive platform to learn and the same applies to many Indian youngsters, who would be playing with and against some of the world’s top players for the first time.”

Australian hockey icon Jamie Dwyer is Sunil’s favourite hockey player; no wonder, he is buzzing with excitement about playing alongside him.

“It’s a big thing for me to share the dressing room and play with the world’s best striker. He has been the FIH World Player of the Year on five occasions and he is definitely special. I hope to imbibe some skills from him,” he gushes.

Jaypee Punjab Warriors have an incisive forwardline but Sunil insisted that it counts for nothing if a team cannot deliver on the field.

“Our strike force is robust. Besides Dwyer, I have good friend Shivendra Singh for company upfront – I have been playing with him for five years – there is also Dharamvir Singh who is also handy. You got to understand that looking good on paper is fine but we have to perform on the field.”

Sunil, however, believed that his side stood a good chance of winning the league.

“If you look at our team combination, we have a good team. I think we have a bright chance of emerging triumphant.”

The soft-spoken, demure Services striker is a big Aamir Khan fan.

“I unwind myself by watching moves with my friends. Aamir Khan is my favourite, I have watched all his movies so far,” he asserted.

Friday, January 11, 2013

India has the potential to be world-beaters, says celebrated Australian hockey striker Jamie Dwyer

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Touted as one of the best hockey strikers in the world, Jamie Dwyer instils fear in the opposition. His goal-poaching knack has made him the man to watch out for on a hockey turf over the years. A veteran of three Olympics, three World Cups and eight Champions Trophy tournaments, Dwyer has played 286 internationals for the Kookaburras (nickname of the Australian men’s hockey team) and scored an impressive 182 goals.

The 33-year-old striker is training hard for Jaypee Punjab Warriors as they launch their campaign in the inaugural Hockey India League against Delhi Wave Riders at Delhi on Monday. Dwyer is excited to be part of the Hockey India League and hopes that the league would do a world of good to not just Indian hockey, but world hockey as well. “There is so much of excitement about the Hockey India League, not just in India but but also across the globe. People are talking about hockey on Facebook and Twitter - which just shows that HIL is generating a lot of buzz,” Dwyer said in an exclusive interview.

The five-time FIH World Player of the Year winner believes HIL will uplift Indian hockey. “HIL will definitely raise the profile of hockey in India. It will encourage many youngsters to take up hockey,” the celebrated striker said.

The Kookaburras striker is glad to see hockey players earn some good money from the league. “Hockey players don’t earn much like the cricketers the world over. I think HIL is a great opportunity for the players to earn some good money, they thoroughly deserve it,” Dwyer observed.

India’s creditable performance in the FIH 34th Champions Trophy in Melbourne came in for praise from Dwyer. “They are very skillful, they looked confident in the Champions Trophy. There was a lot of self-belief in the side,” he pointed out.

Dwyer, whose crucial extra time golden goal helped Australia to beat Netherlands and bag their first-ever hockey gold in Athens (2004), reckons the Indian team need to work on their consistency. “Consistency is one thing that has let India down. If they can improve on their consistency, I’m sure India will regularly reach the semifinals and finals of major tournaments like Olympics, World Cup and Champions Trophy.”

Australia, Germany and Netherlands are the hockey powerhouses in the world. Can India come anywhere close to them? “Definitely. India has immense potential and can be a world-beater in the years to come. They must play teams like Australia, Germany, Netherlands on a regular basis, which will lead to an improvement in their hockey,” he remarked.

Dwyer, who is nicknamed ‘Foetus’, called for the setting up of hockey academies across the country. “You need more hockey academies across the country. You need coaches to guide youngsters at different age levels with proper planning and training. These academies will be able to provide a strong supply line to the national team.”

Jaypee Punjab Warriors is being talked about as the team to beat in the HIL. How does he assess his team’s chances? “We are really looking forward to the league. We have got a good team, but that’s on paper, we got to deliver on the turf,” Dwyer wraps up the conversation on a realistic note as he is in a tearing hurry to hit the practice session.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I try to avoid ghee-coated aloo parathas: Indian hockey captain Sardar Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Fresh from captaining the Indian hockey team to impressive performances in the 34th FIH Champions Trophy and the Asian Champions Trophy, Sardar Singh took a well deserved small break and is now bracing up to guide the Delhi Wave Riders to a decent showing in the inaugural Hockey India League.

The 26-year-old stopped short of tagging any team as favourites and only chose to paint a realistic picture. “Look, all five teams are evenly balanced. Of course, every team would have their own strengths but let me tell you, no team can be taken lightly,” he said in an exclusive interview.

The league promises to showcase some exhilarating hockey over the coming four weeks. Sardar believes that the team which makes the most of the scoring opportunities will be strong contenders for the HIL crown. “Any team which consistently converts the scoring chances will emerge as strong title contenders. Similarly, any team which makes lesser blunders, especially in defence, would be better placed to win the league,” he pointed out.

The Haryana Police DSP is of the opinion that recovering fast after matches will hold the key for all teams. “There will be back-to-back matches and it is not going to be easy. I guess that’s where teams recovering fast will enjoy a competitive advantage,” he makes his point.

There is already so much talk about Hockey India League giving India hockey a big ‘push’. And the Delhi Wave Riders’ marquee player has no doubts that the HIL would raise the profile of hockey not just in India but also on the international stage. “It is the best thing that has happened to Indian and world hockey. The Indian players will hugely benefit from it, even the foreign players would richly benefit. Hockey India deserves a pat on the back for conducting the HIL.”

One of the world’s best centre-halfs cited the example of the Premier Hockey League to buttress his point. “The PHL was a great success and it should have been continued. People who were running after cricket were turning towards hockey. Not just that, the PHL provided a supply line of youngsters to the national team. Hopefully, HIL will provide the supply line for India and showcase some hidden talents.”

The Indian midfielder feels that the presence of some of the world’s top players will surely help to pull in more crowds to the stadium and hook more people to the television. “Definitely it will. Guys like Jamie Dwyer, Taeke Taekema and Teun de Noojer are well known world over. Presence of such iconic players will draw in the crowds and viewers on TV,” he said on a bullish note.

The Indian team’s performance in the 34th FIH Champions Trophy and Asian Champions Trophy has raised the banner of hope among the hockey fans. And Sardar feels that all the hard work put in by the boys after the disastrous Olympics campaign came to the fore. “Trapping and man-to-man marking was a concern at the Olympics but we worked hard on these areas and it showed in Melbourne and Doha. Our defence did a great job, even while defending penalty corners,” he observed.

No other player sprang a bigger surprise than goalkeeper PT Rao – his standout performance was a big positive surprise for Sardar. “It was a pleasant surprise. We did not even expect Rao to perform so well in Melbourne but he did a fantastic job. His vast experience of playing at the domestic level also stood him in good stead,” he was lavish in praise for the 34-year-old Services goal-tender.

Sardar touched a pertinent point when he talked about the need to play against top teams on a regular basis. “We need to play against teams like Australia, Netherlands and Germany on a regular basis. Playing against such teams would give our players more confidence and also improve our hockey.”

The demure Indian captain, who has played more than 150 internationals, assessed the performance of the Indian forward line. “Gurwinder Singh Chandi and SV Sunil have been around for some time and fared well. There were quite a few youngsters playing in their first tournaments and made some mistakes; probably they were little nervous going into their first senior tourney. I’m sure they will get better with experience.”

Small breaks between tournaments are a great thing for any player. And for Sardar, it is no different. He enjoyed the break after playing three tournaments in a span of one month.

But like always, he takes all care to keep a check on his diet while he is on a break and spending time with his family. “You need to watch out for your diet. Like when I go to my village, my relatives shower me with so much affection and serve me ghee-coated aloo parathas. Initially, I couldn’t say no to them but later was able to convince them that having ghee disturbs my fitness. Now they are fully aware of what I eat and what I don’t,” he flashed a broad smile before sounding the final hooter.

I’m focusing on my defending skills, says Indian drag-flicker Sandeep Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

India’s disastrous London Olympics campaign saw the selectors wield the axe on quite a few senior players for the 34th FIH Champions Trophy in Melbourne. Among the senior lot, ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh’s exclusion raised the banner of surprise in many quarters.

But with the Indian team faring well in the Champions Trophy as well as in the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy, the comeback plans of Sandeep would even get tougher.

The seasoned fullback knows well enough and is slogging it out in a bid to stage a comeback to the Indian team. “I’m working hard on my training – not just trying to fine-tune my drag-flicks but also focusing on my tackling and man-to-man marking,” Sandeep said in an exclusive interview ahead of Mumbai Magicians’ training camp which begins in Mumbai on January 9.

Indian team’s chief coach Michael Nobbs has been pretty vocal in saying that Sandeep has to reinvent himself to facilitate his return to the national team. The 26-year-old said he is striving hard to become a better defender. “I’m not just looking to score goals from my drag-flicks; I’m doing whatever I can to improve my defending skills. If I consistently convert my penalty corners, tackling and my man-to-man marking, it will benefit the team hugely,” he puts things in perspective.

And the inaugural Hockey India League would be the passport to a national call-up for the Shahabad born player. “I just want to perform well for Mumbai Magicians and help them win the crown. I’m determined to make a mark in the league with both short corner goals and defending skills. Hopefully, my performance in the HIL will help me to stage a comeback to the national side for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament to be held in Malaysia in March,” he said with a tinge of resoluteness.

Sandeep, who has scored 138 international goals so far, feels that HIL will help to strengthen the base of hockey in India. “HIL is a great thing for Indian hockey. We not only have some of the world’s best players but also some of the top coaches here. It will be a massive learning experience for all the Indian players and the same applies to me as well,” he exuded hope.

Mumbai Magicians is coached by legendary Australian coach Ric Charlesworth. Sandeep is keen to seek tips from him in a bid to further improve his defending skills. “Ric was with the Indian team at the 2008 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia. In the past, I have benefited immensely from his pep talk. I’m eagerly waiting to seek more inputs about bettering my defending skills,” he said candidly.

Mumbai Magicians boast of a robust goalkeeping department, which has the likes of Indian goalies – PR Sreejesh and PT Rao besides Pakistan’s Imran Butt. “We do have a decent line-up of goalkeepers. Hope they live up to their billing,” he said optimistically.

The Magicians have three foreigners in defence – the Australian duo of Joel Carroll and Matthew Swann and Spain’s Sergi Enrique. “All these guys bring a lot of experience to the side. We just got to deliver on the turf,” Sandeep said realistically.

The name of Joel Carroll tempts one to quiz Sandeep about being bought by the Mumbai outfit for his reserve price of $27,800, which got enhanced only because Caroll was bought for $56,000 and as a marquee player, the Indian will be getting 15% more than what the Australian was sold for. Sandeep, however, said he was not unduly concerned at being bought by Mumbai for his base price. “To be honest, I’m not at all disappointed with the fact that I was bought at my base price. I’m happy with what I have in my life and don’t think money is everything in life,” he clears the air.

So, one asked jocularly if he owes a party to Carroll for doing him a favour, Sandeep flashed a broad smile and ducked the topic.

The Mumbai Magicians’ marquee player, who burst on the national scene emerging as the top goal scorer for India at the 2004 Junior Asia Cup in Karachi, has high expectations from the three Pakistani midfielders. “All the three Pakistan players – Mahmood Rashid, Fareed Ahmed and Mohammad Tousiq lend strength to our side. I’m really looking forward to playing alongside them.”

But there is a feeling that Mumbai Magicians’ forward line lacks experience. But Sandeep doesn’t see any cause for concern. Australia’s Glenn Turner is the only experienced campaigner along with talented Malaysian Faisal Saari. “Don’t count out our Indian players. We have players like Chinglensana Singh and Sarvanjit Singh among others; they are all good and will lend value to our side,” the defender concluded, fully backing the desi players.

I’m not under pressure to perform, says Indian hockey forward Shivendra Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda 

Hockey fans across the country can look forward to a dose of riveting action as the inaugural Hockey India League (HIL) commences on January 14. And one man who would be looking to make a big impression in the much-hyped league and stage a comeback to the national team is Indian centre-forward Shivendra Singh.

The 29-year-old experienced striker, who was axed from the Indian team after the country’s hugely disappointing London Olympics campaign, has been putting in the hard yards and is determined to put up a decent showing in the HIL after a string of solid performances in the domestic tournaments. “I’ve been training hard and feeling good about my form. I scored consistently in the Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru Hockey and Obaidullah Khan Gold Cup hockey tournaments. I hope to maintain the same form in HIL,” the soft-spoken forward who will be turning out for Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the HIL, said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of their team’s opening day camp in Jalandhar.

The Gwalior lad is fully aware that an impressive stint in the HIL would significantly enhance his national recall chances for the 2013 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament to be held at Ipoh, Malaysia in March. “The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup will be India’s next international assignment after the Asian Champions Trophy. It’s only natural that players who perform in the HIL would stand a bright chance of making it to the national team,” he said matter-of-factly.

Is there any pressure on him to deliver considering the fact that the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is India’s next international campaign after the HIL? He brushed aside any such thoughts. “I don’t think that there is any pressure on me to perform just because an international tourney is held after the HIL. I’m just going to play my natural game; if I put pressure on myself it will only affect my game. It is always better to stay positive.”

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since India’s disastrous London Olympics campaign. Is there anything he can pinpoint as to what could have led to our wooden spoon finish?
“Look, the team was fully fit and there was no shortage of motivation. It’s difficult to pinpoint one single factor but I just feel maybe our limited exposure to the blue turf proved to be our undoing. We played on the blue turf in our Olympic preparatory tours to France and Spain; we played about four games on the blue turf. One can’t blame anyone for our limited exposure to the blue turf as we qualified only five months preceding the Olympics,” he pondered.

But the Indian team showed resurgence of some sorts with a fourth place finish in the 34th FIH Champions Trophy and a runners-up finish in the Asian Champions Trophy. “Our boys put up a superb show. Our defence was outstanding. Both Vokkaliga Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh showed a lot of responsibility in the absence of seniors like Sandeep Singh and Ignace Tirkey. Raghunath, in particular, seems to be handling his vice captain responsibilities very well. Even goalkeeper PT Rao dished out a stellar performance,” Shivendra was all praise for the Indian defence.

Talking of the Hockey India League, Jaypee Punjab Warriors is being talked about as the team to be beat with a bevy of star players in their ranks. Shivendra feels that on-field performance counts than just looking formidable on paper. “It’s nice to have a good side but how we perform on the turf will matter the most. Having a good side is nice but you got to combine well as a side,” he put things in perspective.

Shivendra, who played 180 internationals and scored 81 goals, is excited about playing alongside the likes of SV Sunil and Australian legend Jamie Dwyer. “Sunil is a good friend of mine while I know Dwyer quite well also. Hopefully, we would form a lethal combination,” he exuded an upbeat tone.

One thing that makes Shivendra prominent among others is his headband he wears in every match. “I started wearing it for my wife Nishi, she likes me wearing the headband,” he says coyly.

One can be rest assured that there will never be shortage of hockey discussion at home since his wife is a former international women’s hockey player. What’s more, Nishi was also a forward like Shivendra. “She played for India during the 1999-2004 period. Both of us worked for the Railways before I moved to Air India,” said the Air India Assistant Manager.

Shivendra’s favourite striker is Dhanraj Pillay, who is the technical director of the Uttar Pradesh Wizards, while goalkeeper PR Sreejesh has been the toughest nut for him to crack. “I like Dhanraj bhai for his burst of speed. He can rattle any defence with his speed. I found PR Sreejesh the most difficult to beat. Even in practice, I find it difficult to breach his defence,” said Shivendra who is also a close pal of Sreejesh. “Yeah, Sreejesh is one of my closest friends in the Indian team. It’s not because of my close friendship I’m saying he is the most difficult goalkeeper to score off, he is genuinely a tough cookie,” the Indian centre-forward signed off.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

I'm working on my consistency, says Indian shuttler Ajay Jayaram

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
2012 was an up-and-down year for India’s second highest ranked men’s singles shuttler, Ajay Jayaram. From scaling the highs of reaching his maiden Super Series semifinal – the Li Ning China Masters, a tournament where he stunned Japan’s world number three Kenichi Tago in the opening round – to shocking China’s world number 12 Wang Zhengming in the first round of the Yonex Sunrise Hong Kong Open, to enduring early exits in quite a few tournaments, the year 2012 remained a mixed bag for him.

Undoubtedly, his big wins over fancied opponents like Tago and Zhenming are a pointer to his immense potential to upset the apple-cart of the world’s best.

The demure Indian Oil employee sounded upbeat about the improvement in his performance graph in 2012. He spoke on this and much more in an exclusive interview.


How would you assess your performance in 2012. Do you think consistency is one thing you really need to work on? 

2012 has been an up-and-down year for me. I have had some good results from time to time, but haven’t been able to maintain consistency in my performance. Obviously, consistency is something I’m working on. I believe I need to work on the mental aspect of my game as well so that I can churn out good results on a consistent basis.

You started the year 2012 with a ranking of 28 and you finished it with a ranking of 31. So, you haven’t gained much in rankings nor you have slipped much. What are your thoughts on this?

Look, rankings do not always speak of how well a shuttler played during the entire year. I played some of my best matches in 2012. I defeated much fancied players like Kenichi Tago and Wang Zhengming. I battled with the the world number one Lee Chong Wei and took him to three games twice this year. I also achieved a career-best ranking of 23 and attained a Super Series ranking of 11. But as I’ve said before, I’ve been unable to maintain the same level throughout the year, which I believe is the reason why I haven’t progressed much ranking-wise.

September 2012 will hold special memories for you since you reached your career-best ranking of 23. Your thoughts?

Well, when I started 2012, I was definitely hoping to break into the top-20. However, I sustained an injury at the start of the year and when I did play some good matches, I couldn’t gain the necessary points as I had to defend some of my points from the previous year; also my performance was a bit patchy. However, I was happy to reach a career-high ranking of 23, it was special. Although I won’t say I’m entirely satisfied, I would consider it as a landmark, which I hope to better in 2013.

There has been a lot of talk in various quarters about how you missed the London Olympics bus. In hindsight, how would you look at it?

The Olympics was definitely a heart-breaking moment for me. Everything changed so suddenly and unexpectedly. I was deeply disappointed. But I believe I handled the setback quite well. I put that Olympics disappointment behind me and worked really hard and was able to string together good results.

Parupalli Kashyap went on to become the first Indian men’s singles player to reach the Olympic quarterfinals. What’s your take?

I think Kashyap has been playing very well and not just in the London Olympics. The latter half of 2012 has been pretty good for him. He has been quite confident and aggressive on court and I think that’s what is getting him the good results.

Parupalli Kashyap once said all five of you (Sourabh Varma, RMV Gurusaidutt and Anand Pawar included) are good enough to break into the top-10. What’s your view?

I reckon there about 6 to 7 players in India who are capable of breaking into the top-15. Many of us have pipped much higher ranked shuttlers in the last twelve months or so. There are about 5 of us already in the top-50. I’m sure you will see more players from India in the top 15.

Do you think this healthy rivalry augurs well for the future of Indian badminton?

Definitely. I think that is the main reason why Indian badminton is faring well. Healthy competition is always good for the sport. You tend to work harder only when there is rivalry and it also keeps everyone on their toes with little room for complacency.

Saina Nehwal is doing wonders to Indian badminton with her consistent performances on the world stage and winning a plethora of endorsement deals. Why do you think that our men’s singles players are struggling to get sponsors despite five Indians being in the top-50?

Saina is undoubtedly doing wonders to Indian badminton. And she deserves every bit of the endorsements she is getting. However, there isn’t enough corporate support for the next lot of players. I think there is a crying need to raise more awareness about where and what we play. Although the scenario is changing for the better, it still needs to improve further. Hopefully, the IBL (Indian Badminton League) will have the desired effect.

Game-wise, which are the areas you are looking to improve in 2013?

Over the last year, I have become more aggressive on court and have added a few more strokes to my armoury. I think I’m lacking a bit in the mental aspect of the game. I need to become more mean and positive on court. I’m working on it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it happen this year.

Unforced errors are an Achilles’ heel for the best of shuttlers. How are you addressing it?

Attack is the best form of defense, goes the saying. The same way, I think worrying too much about unforced errors only tends to make you commit more of them. I think the trick is to stay positive and not lose too much sleep over it.

Your semifinal finish at the Li Ning China Masters tournament must be one of the high points of your career since it was your maiden last-four finish in a Super Series event. Tell us a bit about your performance.

The China Masters is definitely a high point of 2012. It was a special feeling since it was my maiden Super Series semifinal appearance. I remember going into my first round match against world number 3 Tago with a very positive attitude. I played an aggressive game and was quite confident, which paved the way for my opening win and subsequently my semifinal finish.

You also upset China’s world number 12 Zhengming Wang at the Yonex Sunrise Hong Kong Open. Would you rate that win as one of your big wins in 2012?

I rate my win against Wang Zhengming at the Hong Kong open as my best win in 2012. Wang was in a rich vein of form, having reached the finals of the China Open the previous week. I played a good match on that day, showing good variation at the net and maintaining sustained attacks throughout the match.

Which are the forthcoming international tournaments you are taking part in?

I’ll be leaving this weekend for the Korea Open Super Series Premier, followed by the Malaysia Open Super Series.

Who is your favourite men’s singles player and why?
My favourite player would have to be Peter Gade. Everything, from the way he walks into the court, his attitude, his commitment and his humility really inspires me. I have never seen any shuttler walk into a court and put in less than 100% effort at all times.

What does Ajay Jayaram do when he is not playing badminton?

I like to watch movies and sitcoms. I do read books occasionally, listen to music and try my hand at other sports.

You train under English coach Tom John. How much have you benefited from his coaching?

I have been training with Tom in Bangalore for the past 2 years and he has brought about a huge change in my game. The best quality about him is that he manages to get the best out of you in every session.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hopefully sponsors will knock my door, says India's top ranked men's singles shuttler Parupalli Kashyap

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
Breaking into the top-15 of the world rankings is a significant leap for any shuttler. And for India’s Parupalli Kashyap, it isn’t any different. The Hyderabad lad is experiencing an on-top-of-the-world feeling after scaling a career-high world ranking of 14, following his maiden singles triumph in the recently-concluded Syed Modi International badminton tournament in Lucknow.

Cracking the top-15 is a realistic target Kashyap had set his sights on at the beginning of 2012. “I started the year with a ranking of 27 and was confident of moving up in the ranking ladder. Honestly speaking, I had set myself a target of reaching the top-15 by the end of 2012, so it’s hugely satisfying to achieve what I’m have been aiming for the year 2012,” Kashyap told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

Kashyap’s arrival in the top-15 was largely possible due to his first singles crown in the Syed Modi International tournament. By his own admission, the biggest singles win did not get quite hog the newpaper headlines as the day happened to be the one-day international retirement of great Sachin Tendulkar. “Sachin is the God of Indian cricket. He deserves all the media attention. I don’t harbor any hard feelings but just thought many people probably might have forgotten the fact that the country’s top men’s singles player won his maiden international singles title,” Kashyap tossed a googly.

Indian Badminton has been taken to a new level by the exploits of Saina Nehwal but the Indian men haven’t been far behind performance-wise – as many as five Indians (Ajay Jayaram, Sourabh Varma, RMV Gurusaidutt and B Sai Praneeth besides Kashyap) are in the top-50. “Sania has had a phenomenal 2012 and I’m very happy for her – she deserves all the sponsorship deals for all the sweat and toil she is putting in. At the same time, sponsors must come forward to support the men’s shuttlers as well. I still don’t have a sponsor despite being the number one men’s singles player in the country over a long while now. I really hope cracking the top-15 would encourage the sponsors to knock my door,” he puts things in perspective.

The 25-year-old is pragmatic enough to realize that shuttlers got to make the most since a shuttler’s career is not very long. “We don’t make money like our cricketers. A shuttler’s career is short and we have to make the moolah during our playing days,” the Indian Oil Corporation A-Grade Officer said.

Kashyap became the first Indian men’s singles player to reach the Olympic quarterfinals last July-August. But he is a tad disappointed that his exploits at London failed to bring any cash awards. “The Central government had announced that a cash award of Rs 10 lakh would be given to all those athletes, who have entered the quarterfinals of their respective events, but till now I haven’t received any such award. Even the Andhra Pradesh Government hasn’t given me any cash award after my quarterfinal finish at the London Olympics,” he sang a sour tone.

There is a general feeling in Badminton circles that Kashyap has the ammunition to upset the best in the business, but has this knack of losing matches from winning positions. “I agree that I was losing matches from winning positions. It’s not that I become complacent after gaining a big lead. I think I’ve improved on this aspect. I’ve substantially tightened my game,” he observed.

The world number 14 believes he can be even more lethal if he works on his speed and defence. “I need to improve my percentage of speed. My defence is steady and if I can be more steady with my defensive game it will do a lot of good to my game.”

A product of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, Kashyap owes everything to the PGBA for what he is today. “I have been training at the PGBA since its start in 2004-05. Gopi bhaiya has been doing a superb job with the youngsters. He starts his day at 4.00 am and has time for every shuttler irrespective of his reputation. I have benefited immensely from him,” he lavished praise on his guru.

The soft-spoken likes Gopichand for his straight talking ways. “What I like about Gopi bhaiya is that he is harsh. When I say harsh I mean he will come down hard on you if he sees you are doing anything wrong in training or not focusing as desired, but off the court he is a great friend. These qualities make him a great coach. I don’t even need to say this; look at his contribution to Indian badminton, see how many shuttlers have come through under his tutelage? Indian badminton has largely thrived because of him,” he gushes.

The first career singles win and the highest world ranking achieved, Kashyap is now looking forward to the upcoming international tournaments. “I will be participating in the Korean Open in January first up and hope to do well over there,” he concluded on an upbeat note.

Hope Hockey India League changes the landscape of hockey in India, says HI secretary Narinder Batra

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Hockey in the country is set to get a massive leg-up as the inaugural Hockey India League (HIL) kickstarts across five venues – Delhi, Lucknow, Jalandhar, Mumbai and Ranchi , beginning January 14.

The much-hyped league is expected to give a fresh leash of life to the sport, which has taken some significant strides following the disastrous London Olympics campaign, with the national team showing sparks of hope with creditable performances in the 34th Champions Trophy and the Asian Champions Trophy.

The success of any tournament hinges a lot on how much of a helping hand it gets from the sponsors -  Hockey India seems to have done their job on this front, announcing a multi-year sponsorship deal with two-wheeler major Hero MotorCorp. “We have inked a three-year deal with Hero MotorCorp. They will be our title sponsor of the league. We are extremely happy to be associated with them,” Hockey India secretary Narindra Batra told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.

In fact, this is not the first time that Hero has come forward to sponsor a hockey event. They were the title sponsors of the 2012 Olympics qualifier tournament as well as the 2010 World Cup, both held in New Delhi.

Hockey India had weathered much criticism from all quarters after India’s wooden spoon finish in the 2012 London Olympics. But the national men’s team’s eye-catching showing in both the FIH 34th Champions Trophy and Asian Champions Trophy tournaments seems to have reignited hopes among the hockey fans about the sport climbing up the performance ladder. Batra puts things in perspective. “We finished 11th in London and I agree that kind of performance was unacceptable but you got to move on and initiate corrective measures. I don’t really think about who is criticizing or praising me; I believe in being constructive. I try to do the job to the best of my ability,” Batra quipped.

How does he assess India’s performance graph in the FIH 34th Champions Trophy and Asian Champions Trophy tournaments? “Of course, we try to draw positives from every tournament but I’m more focused on the bigger picture of India being one of the world’s top sides,” he said.

The HI secretary has set realistic targets for the national men’s team. “I would like to see India among the top-6 by 2013-end or early 2014 and among the top-4 during the 2014-2016 period,” he observed.

Does he really think that the Hockey India League can change the landscape of hockey in the country? “Well, that’s our aim. We hope it does. We want to see more astroturfs across the country and more youngsters taking up the game.”

The Indian Premier League took the country by storm. And Hockey India would be hoping that the HIL becomes a crowd-puller. “We want to fill the void after IPL. Let us hope the HIL is a big draw,” he sounded upbeat.

One question that every hockey fan wants is to see one hockey body running the sport in the country as one unit. Batra is quick to react. “There is only one hockey body in the country. All have merged with Hockey India,” he said emphatically.

Batra is also the treasurer of the Delhi Disrict Cricket Association. How does he juggle both cricket and hockey? “I am not actively involved in the day-to-day activities of DDCA. I am fully occupied with Hockey India,” he clears the air.

India continued to languish at 11th position in FIH world rankings even after India’s fourth place finish in the 34th Champions Trophy, even as bronze medallist Pakistan surged five spots to be placed fifth. Batra is bullish about India moving up in the rankings. “We are not too bothered about it. We will surely climb up when the next FIH rankings are announced,” he concluded.