Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Can Dhoni perform outside the sub-continent?

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The amount of criticism Mahendra Singh Dhoni faced in the last fifteen months has been immense. Critics were baying for his blood pertaining to his Test captaincy and his batting form in the longer version (critics, however, have no complaints about his captaincy and batting form in the ODIs and T20s).

There was a clamour for his removal as Test captain largely because the general perception was that he hasn’t done anything of note beyond wicketkeeping and leading the side to merit a place in the Indian Test side. His regular habit of pinning the blame on his batsmen whenever our batting line-up misfired without including himself in the ‘failed group’ hasn’t really gone down well with cricket lovers as well as with some of the former cricketers.

One can’t blame the cynics for going hard at Dhoni. Going into the Chennai Test, Dhoni has scored 861 runs from 28 innings in 16 Tests with just one century and six fifties. His last century came against West Indies at Kolkata in November 2010.

The Ranchi lad was unable to lead any lower-order resistance during the exacting tours of England and Australia where India were handed 4-0 series defeats.

During the England tour of 2011, Dhoni did notch up two seventy-odd scores; while on the 2011-12 Australia tour, Dhoni cut a sorry figure save for a fifty in Sydney.

The 2012-13 domestic season has been a bit of a mixed bag for Dhoni. Two half-centuries in the two-match Test series against New Zealand was followed by a period of struggle before he got a fighting 99 against England.

Given this scenario, no one expected Dhoni to set the Chepauk on fire when he walked in at the fall of Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket.

When Dhoni first arrived on the Test arena, I always harboured the hope that he can do the kind of damage Australian Adam Gilchrist did given the range of shots the Indian captain possesses.

I have seen on umpteen occasions how Gilchrist used to rescue Australia by taking the opposition attack by the scruff of their neck when their top-order have come a cropper.

So many times, we have seen Gilly stride out at number seven and blaze away without caring whether the wicket was a belter or a green-top.

Dhoni hasn’t quite been able to do that for India. But his power-packed knock of 224 took many by surprise – this knock might give Dhoni the self-belief he probably needs to come up with such audacious stuff on a regular basis.

We all knew that Dhoni has a wide repertoire of strokes coupled with a great temperament. Yes, he can be iffy against the moving ball or the deliveries fired at his rib-cage but such kinks can be sorted out by long sessions in the nets.

The tour of South Africa is coming up later this year and billion Indian fans would tag Dhoni as a ‘batsman for all conditions’ only if he can come up with knocks close to the Chennai one in South African conditions. I strongly desire to see such a blitzkrieg from Dhoni’s bat outside the sub-continent.

I’m no way taking away anything from Dhoni’s 224 against Australia. Like any cricket lover, I was thrilled to bits smacking the Australian bowlers.

I strongly feel that a similar knock outside the sub-continent would be an ideal critic-silencing move. Or else he would be known as a ‘flat track bully’.

The 224 at Chennai could pan out to be a career-defining one for Dhoni. We want to see more such sizzling stuff from the Ranchi hero – nothing like it if such knocks are essayed in Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand, where Dhoni is throwing caution to the wind when the bowlers are in full cry.

Hockey India’s move to rest seniors for Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is a prudent one

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

With the Hero Hockey World Round 2 tournament ending on a bright note for the Indian men’s team, the focus would now shift to the 22nd edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament which begins at the Sultan Azlan Shah Stadium in Ipoh from March 9 – 17.

Chief coach Michael Nobbs has been vocal about building the team’s bench strength, giving a lot of opportunities to youngsters in a bid to have a bigger pool of players to choose from. This clearly explains why the team management decided to rest the likes of drag-flicker Vokkaliga Raghunath, midfielder Birender Lakra, regular captain and midfielder Sardar Singh and forward SV Sunil for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tourney.

The move to rest the experienced quartet is a wise move considering the workload these guys have shared in the last few months. These players have been part of the FIH 34th Champions Trophy, Asian Champions Trophy, Hero Hockey India League and the just-concluded FIH Hockey World League.

In fact, the Hero Hockey World League was a grueling affair with many back-to-back matches coupled with hectic travelling. Given this scenario, Hockey India has struck the right chord by resting these experienced players for the Ipoh tourney.

To be fair to them, some of these players went off the boil during the Hockey World League despite their best efforts.

Such a move has dual benefits. First, these players get an opportunity to recharge their batteries and be fresh for the future tournaments. Second, it allows many talented youngsters to get vital international exposure at the senior level.

Guys like Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Harbir Singh, Malak Singh must have been richer with the Hockey World League experience. For the likes of Satbir Singh (who played for Mumbai Magicians), Amit Rohidas (he played for Ranchi Rhinos) and Gurmail Singh (who played for Punjab Warriors and was part of the FIH Champions Trophy but was dropped for the Asian Champions Trophy and Hockey World League), it’s a massive opportunity to impress the national selectors with a strong showing against some of the formidable hockey teams like Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea and hosts Malaysia.

The Indian defence would wear a young look with Rupinder Pal Singh, Gurjinder Singh and Harbir Singh manning operations without the experienced Raghunath. Similarly, the midfield minus Sardar Singh and Birendra Lakra would count on Kothajit Singh and Manpreet Singh and newbies Gurmail Singh and Amit Rohildas.

The young ‘Singh’ brigade would take up the goal-scoring responsibilities in Malaysia. Mandeep Singh, Malak Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Satbir Singh, Dharamvir Singh, Chinglensana Singh, along with Nitin Thimmaiah and skipper Danish Mujtaba, would be eyeing to make a big impression at Ipoh.

One can argue that guys like Manpreet Singh, Kothajit Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Dharamvir Singh and Danish Mujtaba have also been playing non-stop hockey since last December like seniors like Sardar, Birendra, Raghunath and Sunil, but one also has to consider that these young turks can only get better with more exposure.

As for Sardar, Raghunath, Birendra and Sunil, they can take a welcome break and be ready for the next international tournament after the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, which, in all probability, would be the India-Pakistan home-and-away Test series followed by the FIH Hockey World League Round 3 tourney, which is slated to be held in June this year.

To put it simply, HI’s decision to rest the seniors is a great move if we look at the bigger picture of Indian hockey.

What’s next for Indian men and women in the FIH Hockey World League?

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Hockey fans would be mighty pleased to see the Indian men’s and women’s hockey teams qualify for the round 3 of the FIH Hero Hockey World League tournament. The Indian men maintained their winning streak, posting five wins in a row to make the Round 3 cut along with Ireland, while the Indian hockey eves made the cut along with Japan, with whom they were involved in an intriguing tussle which went into penalty shootout.

Both India and Ireland are the first two teams to make it to Round 3. There will be three more Round 2 tournaments played over the next three months from which six teams would join India and Ireland in the Round 3 tournament, which is slated to be held in June this year.

The second men’s Round 2 tournament would kick off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from February 27 to March 5. World number 10 Argentina and world number 12 South Africa would be the favourites to qualify from this tournament. They would be competing with 25th ranked Chile, 29th ranked United States, 33rd ranked Brazil and 34th ranked Trinidad and Tobago.

The third men’s Round 2 tournament would be held at St. Germain, France from May 6 to 12. World number 9 Belgium, 14th ranked Canada besides 17th ranked hosts France would be the favourites to make the cut. Other teams taking part in this Round 2 tourney are 19th ranked Poland, 23rd ranked Scotland and 50th ranked Portugal.

The fourth and final men’s Round 2 tournament would be held at Elektrostal, Russia from May 27 to June 2. World number 16 Japan and hosts Russia (ranked 20th) would be the favourites to qualify from this group. Other competing teams are 21st ranked Czech Republic, 22nd ranked Austria, 24th ranked Egypt and 27th ranked Ukraine.

Hockey World League Round 2 Women: India V Russia

In the women’s section, India and Japan have become the third and fourth teams to qualify for Round 3. In fact, the New Delhi event was the second women’s Round 2 tournament. Earlier, South Africa and Belgium made the cut from the first women’s Round 2 tournament held in South Africa last month.

South Africa, Belgium, India and Japan would be joined by four other teams, who would be playing in the third and fourth women’s Round 3 tournaments in the coming weeks.

The third women’s Round 2 tournament will be held in Valencia, Spain from February 25 to March 3. World number 14 Ireland and hosts Spain (15th ranked) would be the favourites to qualify from this tourney. Other competing teams are 17th ranked Italy, 21st ranked Belarus and 37th ranked Czech Republic.

The fourth and final women’s Round 2 tournament will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from March 4 to 10. World number 10 United States and 18th ranked Chile would be the favourites to qualify from this tourney. Other competing teams are 19th ranked Scotland, 27th ranked Trinidad & Tobago, 50th ranked Uruguay and 55th ranked Brazil.

Round 3 would feature two tournaments featuring sixteen teams clubbed into two pools. Eight teams who make it to Round 3 in both the men’s and women’s categories, would be joined by the teams having a world ranking of 1-8, who have been given a bye to round 3.

Eight teams would qualify for the Hockey World League finals.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hockey India derecognizes Air India hockey team

This piece was published in Sportskeeda 

In a move that is going to set a right precedent for all its members, Hockey India (HI) acted sternly and de-recognized Air India hockey team – touted as one of the formidable hockey teams in the domestic circuit.

Air India was found guilty of non-payment of fees since 2010-11.

Hockey India arrived at this decision unanimously at its executive board meeting held at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium on Saturday.

It may be pertinent to mention that Air India has been a member of Hockey India since 2009. In 2012, Air India was demoted to associate member due to non-payment of their annual membership fee.

It is learnt that Hockey India considered Air India’s stock in the domestic circuit but felt the need to crack the whip as the outfit was not responding positively despite repeated reminders.

Insiders say Hockey India hopes the move would encourage all its affiliate members and associate members to work in a professional manner.

“Although it was tough to de-recognise Air India as an Associate Member but discipline should be maintained for the smooth functioning of the National Sports Federation. We expect all the Affiliate Members and Associate Members to work professionally which is the basic criteria to develop any sport in the country,” said HI secretary general Narinder Batra.

Hockey India currently has 32 state member units, five associate members and two members through State Olympic Associations.

Air India hockey team is coached by former Indian star Dhanraj Pillay, who served as the technical director of Uttar Pradesh Wizards during the recently  concluded Hero Hockey India League.

Air India team features Indian forwards – Shivendra Singh and Arjun Halappa – both of whom are currently out of the national side.

Air India has been performing well in the various domestic tournaments. Air and Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) were declared joint-winners of the 87th All-India MCC Muruguppa Gold Cup hockey tournament in Chennai after IOC refused to play after one of their goals in the penalty shootout was disallowed, being allowed first by umpire RV Raghu Prasad. Air India were leading 4-3 at that juncture after both teams were locked 2-2 in regulation time.

Air India also won the Obaidullah Khan Gold Cup hockey tournament in Bhopal, this time putting it across IOC 4-3 in the final.

Air India reached the semifinals of the Nehru Hockey tournament. In fact, they walked out after protesting BPCL’s match winning goal which the latter won 2-1 to reach the final. Air India was barred from playing in the third place play-off match for their unbecoming behaviour.

Air India did not take part in the prestigious Indian Oil Servo Surjit Singh Memorial hockey tournament held in Jalandhar, which was won by IOC.

Air India finished runners-up in the Senior Nationals, losing 1-2 to Punjab.

Changes in scoring system working well for Indians, says former international shuttler Uday Pawar

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Former international shuttler Uday Pawar has served Indian badminton with distinction in both singles and doubles. A former national coach, he presently runs the Uday Pawar Badminton Academy in Mumbai. His son Anand Pawar is a top Indian shuttler, while his wife Sujata is also a former international shuttler. Uday talks about his playing days, the health of Indian badminton and much more in an exclusive interview.

Tell us a bit about your early days in badminton – how did you take up the sport?
I was born and brought up in Lonavala. I liked to play all sports at a young age and was the captain of my Don Bosco school team in sports like badminton, cricket and table tennis. My late father P.D.Pawar, was a cricketer, who played for the Combined Universities and was a sports lover, who used to organise state-level tournaments in Lonavala every year. When I was about 10 years old, I won a badminton tournament in Lonavala defeating a good player from Mumbai and since then, badminton became my biggest passion.

Can you enlighten us on how you started off on the domestic circuit at various age levels?
Well, during those days, there was only under-18 category in the junior level. I was fortunate that at the age of 13, I was playing outside Lonavala for the first time and fared well and was selected to represent Pune district and for Maharashtra. I also won my first national crown in junior doubles with Sanjay Sharma the same year. I later went on to win 3 more junior national doubles titles with my good friend Madhur Bezbora and the mixed doubles title when the event was first introduced in the juniors, with Manik Paranjpe. In the junior singles, I was not so successful as I lost two national finals to Syed Modi.

Do you have any fond memories of your first senior nationals?
I still remember I beat four seeded players and reached the finals of my first senior nationals in 1976, where I lost to Prakash Padukone in a close match. In fact, those days both the junior and senior nationals were held simultaneously; there is an interesting statistic – Prakash Padukone is the only player from India to win both the titles in the same year. Ami Ghia Shah was the winner in the Seniors and finalist in the Junior; interestingly, my wife Sujata was the junior champion and runners-up in the Seniors (she and Ami won one title each and had reached the finals in both events in the same year). I have the dubious distinction of losing both the finals in the same year – juniors to Syed Modi and the seniors to Prakash Padukone.

Can you tell us a bit about your first international tournament?
After reaching the finals in my first senior nationals at the age of 17 at Jallandhar in 1976, I was selected to represent India in the first-ever World Championship held in Sweden (Malmo). I lost in the first round in three games, but the sheer experience of representing the country in such a prestigious event was an an honour and a big boost for my badminton career.

What are your biggest wins in singles and doubles?
I was good in both singles and doubles – I won several national doubles titles and was the singles runners-up twice – lost to Prakash Padukone and then Syed Modi. In hindsight, I feel that I should have perhaps concentrated on one of the two events as playing in two events put me at a distinct disadvantage against players like Prakash and Modi, who played only singles. My workload used to be double and that means I was never fresh by the time I reached the finals. I defeated Modi twice, but could never beat Prakash who was too good, but I consider myself lucky to have partnered Prakash in doubles during Thomas Cup and other team events. My advice to youngsters is to play both singles and doubles till they are 17-18 years old, but then specialize in one of the two events.

We won many laurels for the country at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. I learnt a lot of my badminton from Prakash when we partnered each other in doubles and I consider him as one of the most intelligent and clever players produced by India. In fact, we all (his contemporaries) still call him “BOSS” with respect and affection!

How has badminton changed over the years?
Badminton has changed a lot over the years because of better equipments, scientific training/coaching and also because of the change in the scoring system. The game has become faster and more aggressive, now even coaching is allowed between points, which have made the role of a coach more vital. Earlier, a player had to use his own brains to outwit an opponent, but today, a coach can do the thinking for the player, which is not such a good thing as it has robbed the game of its natural flair.

Which has been your most memorable international match and why?
The deciding match that me and Prakash won in doubles at the 1986 Seoul Olympics beating world no. 5 Japanese pair of Matsura & Matsuno to win the bronze medal. India qualifying for the Thomas Cup finals in 1978 & 1989 are other high points of my playing career. In singles, I beat players like Icuk Sugiarto who became the world champion in 1983. I also defeated Kevin Jolly, who was the European champion – these wins are really special for me.

How close are Indian shuttlers in terms of matching the mighty Chinese in all departments of the game?
Look, the change in the scoring format about five years ago has augured well for the India players – the earlier system favoured players with only superior fitness. This format is good for the Indian players as it needs good skills and temperament, which we are good at. There are more breaks in the game, which allow a player to recover and start afresh. One does not have to be as fit as the Chinese or Indonesians, but even if one attains about 80-85% of their fitness, it is enough as we have better skills and temperament.

How do you look at the current health of Indian badminton?

Players like Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap have broken into the top 5 and 10 respectively and now it’s a question of maintaining their fitness and grabbing the opportunities that come their way. They are an inspiration to all the aspiring youngsters from India, who should go all out without any fear or doubt. Their attitude should be – if Saina and Kashyap can do it, so can we.

Tell us a bit about your badminton academy –how did it come up and how is it shaping up?
I was the coach of the senior national team for seven years and our team fared very well during those years, winning medals at the Commonwealth Games as well as qualifying for the Thomas Cup final rounds twice. But, then staying away from the family without getting paid for my services was tough on me. I got the inspiration to start an academy from my coach Mr. P. Pramanik, and formally started it 12 years ago, but even before that I was coaching privately and had produced players like Manjusha Pawangadkar, Sachin Ratti, Vincent Lobo and Sushant Chippalkatti – players who became national champions and went on to win international laurels as well. The unique point about my academy is that all the players have started playing as beginners under my guidance and have gone on to win national titles and represent the country.

Players like my son Anand, Tanvi Lad, Harshil Dani and others have won national titles, beating players from all over the country. Our academy, which is being run in association with a lot of encouragement from Goregaon Sports Club comprises about 25 players of various age groups. We do not have a sponsor now or in all these years, but I have not lost hope. Our efforts are there to be seen in the form of results and we hope these talented youngsters do get support and better facilities that they deserve.

How do you assess Anand Pawar’s performance on the international stage –what’s more you want him to achieve?
Anand was doing very well 2-3 years ago, but he had a major setback in 2009 when he sustained a back injury in his spine. He has won 7 international tournaments over the years, even came very close to beating top-10 player like Sony Dwi Kuncero, played 3 games with the great Lee Chong Wei, but needs to be more consistent and mentally strong. Indian players have traditionally done well at an age later than most Chinese or Indonesians, so the next few years are important for Anand. He has the potential to be a top-10 player and I, as his father and coach along with my wife Sujata, are doing our best to help him. But the journey to the top is his and we pray that he achieves the goals that he has set for himself.

A Statistical Look at the 2013 Hero Hockey India League

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

First goal scorer of the league: Oskar Deecke of Delhi Waveriders vs Punjab Warriors

Fastest goal of the league: SV Sunil for Punjab Warriors vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards and Sandeep Singh for Mumbai Magicians vs Ranchi Rhinos – both scoring in the second minute of play

Total goals scored in the league: 147

Total field goals scored: 95

Total goals scored from penalty corners: 50

Penalty strokes: 2

Highest scoring game: Delhi Waveriders beat Mumbai Magicians 6-4

First hat-trick of the league: Sandeep Singh for Mumbai Magicians vs Delhi Waveriders

Team conceding the most number of goals in the league: 32 – Mumbai Magicians

Team scoring the most number of goals in the league: 41 – Delhi Waveriders

Highest goal scorer from penalty corners: (11) Sandeep Singh

First player to score 2 goals in one match: Dharamvir Singh for Punjab Warriors vs Mumbai Magicians

Number of green cards in the league: 61

First green card of the league: Matthew Ghodes of Delhi Waveriders vs Punjab Warriors

Players getting most green cards in the league: (3) Yuvraj Walmiki, (3) Manpreet Singh

Number of yellow cards in the league: 31

First yellow card of the league: Rob Hammond of Punjab Warriors vs Ranchi Rhinos

Players getting most yellow cards in the league: (2) Rob Hammond, (2) Wouter Jolie, (2) Pradhan Somanna, (2) Sardar Singh, (2) Manpreet Singh

Only match two players got 1 yellow and 1 green card each in a single match: Sardar Singh and Yuvraj Walmiki for Delhi Waveriders vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards

First penalty corner goal: Sandeep Singh for Mumbai Magicians vs Delhi Waveriders

First own goal of the league: Uttar Pradesh Wizards vs Punjab Warriors

First penalty stroke goal of the league: Ashley Jackson for Ranchi Rhinos vs Uttar Pradesh Wizards

Umpires who officiated in most HIL matches: Marcello Servetto of Spain and South Africa’s Gary Simmonds – 10 matches each

Longest unbeaten run in the league: Delhi Waveriders maintained their unbeaten run for 11 matches before losing 1-4 to Uttar Pradesh Wizards

Longest losing streak in the league: Mumbai Magicians lost seven consecutive matches before posting their first win against Uttar Pradesh Wizards

Top 5 flops of Hero Hockey India League

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Teun De Nooijer: The $60,000 signing for Uttar Pradesh Wizards panned out to be a big disappointment not just for his team but for the Indian hockey lovers as well. The celebrated Dutch striker with more than 400 international appearances was carrying the weight of expectations, but simply couldn’t quite live up to it. Save for occasional flashes of brilliance, which saw him engineer a few penalty corners for the Wizards, Nooijer cut a sorry figure. Maybe the fact that he is on the wrong side of thirty could also be a factor for his below par showing in the HIL.

Tushar Khandker: The UP lad, who needed a solid performance in the HIL to merit a comeback to the national team after being omitted from the side after the disastrous London Olympics, flopped big time. Tushar hardly spent enough time in the pitch and when coach Roelant Oltmans put him in action, he looked a guy low on morale and confidence. It is possible that Oltmans didn’t inspire much confidence in Tushar. Hockey lovers would feel that Tushar lost out on a great opportunity to impress the selectors.
aizal Saari of Malaysia

Glenn Turner: The robust striker  has been a great servant of Australian hockey for many years. But as a striker for Mumbai Magicians, Turner was failed to inspire his side, which was banking heavily on him to score. Mumbai didn’t have the luxury of having too many quality forwards in their ranks, which meant that Turner had to find the goals on a consistent basis. In the end, his three goals never really helped his side as drag-flicker Sandeep Singh slammed 11 goals from his short corners to ensure Mumbai at least appear competitive on the pitch. Turner’s poor form was largely responsible for the Magicians’ forward line looking pedestrian.

Yuvraj Walmiki: The twitter boy of Indian hockey seems to be suffering from a crisis of confidence. Delhi Waveriders never fielded him for a lengthy period and one is not sure whether he was carrying any injury or not. Playing alongside a host of talented strikers, Yuvraj, who is no less talented himself, failed to set the HIL on fire. Should feel disappointed with the way the HIL turned out for him.

Faizal Saari: The nippy Malaysian forward was high on confidence going into the Hero Hockey India League after an impressive showing in the second Asian Champions Trophy in Doha. But the diminutive striker was a big let-down for the Mumbai Magicians. One is not sure whether Saari got overawed by the occasion or whether coach Ric Charlesworth gave him adequate enough playing time on the pitch as the rolling substitution rule can sometimes affect a player’s rhythm.

6 players who stole the show during the Hockey India League

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Mandeep Singh: The lean 17-year-old Jalandhar boy was an unknown commodity before the start of the Hero Hockey India League. Yes, he had played for the India junior team but was never a known face. HIL 2013 has ensured that hockey lovers would remember him the most. Emerging as the second top goal-scorer with 10 goals, more importantly helping his side win the league, Mandeep was a constant threat upfront for all the teams. His burst of speed, stick control and ability to anticipate really stood out during the league, prompting the selectors to pick him in the Indian senior team for the Hero World Hockey League Round II as well as for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.

Lloyd Norris Jones: The South African striker’s clinical finishing was one of the key reasons for Delhi Waveriders looking so invincible upfront. Jones was playing in a team which had many other talented strikers, but stole a march over all of them with his great sense of opportunism and razor-sharp strikes. His insurance goal against Punjab Warriors in the semifinals was an absolute treat – the best possible example of making the most of a counter-break.

Moritz Fuerste: The German provided the inspirational tonic to Ranchi Rhinos – and it worked well for the Red Machine as they were playing like a well-oiled machine. His precise slap passes upfront and supreme control in the midfield won many Indian  hearts. Rhinos would be indebted to him for the way he guided the talented Indian youngsters in their side. He deserves all the praise for bringing out the best of Mandeep Singh, Manpreet Singh, Kothajit Singh and Birendra Lakra.

Jolie Wouter: The Dutch defender was rock-solid throughout the league for UP Wizards – probably one of the reasons why the side looked a difficult citadel to breach. His man-to-man marking, nifty tackles and his strong presence during penalty corners made Wizards really solid at the back. He combined nicely with Indian youngster Harbir Singh, whose form faded after some impressive displays at the start of the league. The manner in which he supported the Wizards’ midfield and even at times played upfront just goes to show the versatility of the 27-year-old, who has made 82 international appearances for Netherlands.

Vokkaliga Raghunath: The burly drag-flicker had a wonderful HIL slamming 9 goals including a devastating spell of four goals against Punjab Warriors in the play-off match for the third place. Raghunath shouldered the responsibility of captain admirably and always proved a tough nut to crack in defence as well. He deserves credit for galvanizing the Wizards’ side who lost their way and was also in danger of not making the semifinals after their impressive beginning to the league.

Ajay Kumar Bansal: He was the only Indian coach among the five teams taking part in the HIL. Bansal pleased all with the way he got the best of a side, which had too many talented players from different countries besides the talented Indian youngsters.  He was the coach with Midas touch – every strategy he adopted worked to a nicety until of course the final where Delhi were looking good to win the crown after they held a 1-0 lead going into the final quarter.

HIL has helped to improve my tackling skills, says Indian midfielder Manpreet Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Manpreet Singh was a revelation for the Ranchi Rhinos in the recently concluded Hero Hockey India League. His prowess on the hockey pitch during the 34th FIH Champions Trophy and the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy evoked copious praise from many quarters.

Fresh from playing his part in helping Rhinos clinch the HIL crown, Manpreet is now busy training at the national camp in Delhi for the upcoming Hero Hockey World League Round 2 tournament beginning at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium from February 8.

“It’s nice to be back in the national camp after the HIL. Coach Michael Nobbs is happy to see all of us do well for different franchises. He is now telling us to focus on playing as a team. Hopefully, we would fare well in the Hero Hockey World League Round 2 tournament,” Manpreet says bubbling with excitement in an exclusive interview.

A product of the Surjeet Hockey Academy, Manpreet made his international debut when he led the country in the 2008 Junior Asia Cup in Myanmar. A knee injury in 2009 kept him out of competitive action for almost a year. “I owe a lot to the Surjeet Hockey Academy, where I started training at the age of 12 in 2005 under coaches Avtar Singh and Jarnail Singh. I was with SHA till 2010,” he recalls his early days.

Manpreet is not the only player from the the Surjeet Hockey Academy to play for the country. “My Ranchi Rhinos team-mate Mandeep Singh is also a product of SHA. Then we have Delhi Waveriders’ Akashdeep Singh and Mumbai Magicians’ Satbir Singh, who all have honed their hockey skills at the SHA,” he accentuates the importance of SHA in churning out talented hockey players.

The youngster, who works as an Assistant Manager of Indian Overseas Bank, is coming off a massive learning curve having being part of a star-studded Ranchi Rhinos side in the HIL. “Hero Hockey India League was a huge learning curve for me. As a youngster, I couldn’t have asked for more. When you play with world-class players like Moritz Fuerste, Ashley Jackson, Nick Wilson and Fergus Kavanagh, you keep learning day in day out. Their skills speak for themselves. Sharing the dressing room with some of the world’s top players was a fantastic experience,” Manpreet gushes.

Manpreet believes the HIL was one hell of an experience for the Indian youngsters. “Look at the way our junior players have performed. They really relished the prospect of playing in the HIL. Guys like Mandeep Singh and Malak Singh were outstanding and now have made it to the senior team. The Indian youngsters were the biggest gainers from the HIL.”

So, what has been his biggest learning from the HIL? “I always thought that I needed to work on my tackling skills. There is always room for improvement for a sportsperson and HIL really helped to improve my tackling skills. I’m sure you would see much improved tackling skills from me in the Hero Hockey World League Round 2 tournament,” he promises.

A lot has been said about Ranchi Rhinos’ free-flowing hockey in the HIL. What is that one factor that helped the Reds corner glory? “Ranchi Rhinos won the HIL because of our great teamwork. Our foreign players really combined well with the Indian youngsters, egging them all the time. Our pre-event preparation was also good as it allowed us to get our combination and passing going,” he says.

Manpreet, who has made 57 international appearances for India, feels Rhinos’ depth in the side worked wonders for the team. “During our away league game against Uttar Pradesh Wizards, we were playing without big guns Moritz Fuerste and Ashley Jackson but still won convincingly by a 3-1 margin. I remember Fergus Kavanagh was simply magnificent in that game. He manned the midfield and defence with aplomb even though Mortiz and Jackson were not playing.”

Rhinos had the strongest presence in the midfield among all five HIL teams. How was the real-time experience of essaying passes with a great like Moritz Fuerste? “Just superb, he is so down-to-earth. I tried to learn how he managed to come up with razor-sharp passes that often find strikers upfront. For a striker, it’s like food coming into your food. You know he is so precise with his passes. Another thing Moritz tells me is the importance of weaving passes that induces fouls from the opposition,” he elaborates.

2012 International Super Series - Day 4Manpreet, who made his senior international debut at the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy in Ordos, China, says he was amazed with the training methods, especially their off-the-field training. “Netherlands’ Floris Evers keeps telling us that one should keep the chin up even you are losing. A confidence of a player should be same whether the team is winning or losing. Basically, he was trying to convey that the self-confidence of a player should not get dented just because the team has lost a match,” he points out.

And how about learning playing alongside a supremely talented Ashley Jackson? “Jackson is such a multi-talented player. He is a midfielder who has got everything – speed, skill and potent drag-flicks. Usually, a fullback is known to be a good drag-flicker but as a midfielder Jackson is very handy. He helps out the defence whenever required and doesn’t mind playing upfront.”

Talking of his family, Manpreet hails from Mithapur in Jalandhar district of Punjab – a place which produced the great Pargat Singh. His father is a farmer but hockey runs in the family. “Both my elder brothers Amandeep Singh and Sukhraj Singh have played for Punjab at the national championships,” he reveals with a glint of pride.

And why is he is nicknamed ‘Korean’? “I got this nickname because of hair and also because of the fact that I’m diminutive. Maybe I look like a Korean,” he wraps up the confabulation flashing a broad smile.

There is a need for a women's I-League, says ace Indian women's footballer Bembem Devi

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Indian women footballers have always remained poor cousins of their male counterparts. No matter whether our women footballers fare well on the international stage or win international tournaments, they are invariably meted out with step-motherly treatment. Cash awards seldom come their way, little or no media space is reserved for them – one can go on and on.

Meet veteran Indian women’s football player Oinam Bembem Devi, who brushes aside this glum scenario and tries hard to paint a rosy picture of the sport in India.

“It’s very easy to get disheartened, given the low-profile of women’s football in the country. One has to stay positive. A FIFA delegation comprising of FIFA Consultant on Women Football Monica Stabb of Germany and FIFA Development Officer Dr. Shaji Prabhakaran visited Manipur last December. I urged them to set up academies for women footballers like our men have. They promised to do their best,” Bembem said in an exclusive interview.

The 34-year-old, who captained the Indian eves to a convincing triumph in the 2012 Women’s SAFF Football Championship in Colombo, Sri Lanka last September, is fully convinced that the holding of more domestic tournaments coupled with organized preparation and planning can help the Indian women raise the performance bar.

“There is a pressing need for holding more tournaments at the domestic level. As you have more tournaments at the domestic level, more new talents would come up, and it will also ensure a strong supply line to the national team. At the moment, very few tournaments are held,” opined Bembem, who scored one of the goals in the Indian eves’ 3-1 win over Nepal in the final of the 2nd SAFF Football Championship.

The Manipuri girl, who has been donning the India colours for 17 years since making her international debut in 1995, believes that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) must initiate efforts to conduct a national women’s football league on the lines of the men’s I-League.

“Women’s football needs a big push. I think it will be a great thing if AIFF is able to hold a national women’s football league like the men’s I-League. Such a league will do a lot of good to women football in India; it will also encourage youngsters to take up women’s football,” observed Bembem, who was adjudged the AIFF Woman Footballer of the Year in 2001.

“It was the best moment of my international career,” she says with a glint of pride. Interestingly, that was the only time the award was handed out by the AIFF.

Women’s football hardly draws in crowds. Even the senior nationals that are held every year are a mere formality. Bembem is not sure why there is a lack of interest in women’s football, but reckons that better job opportunities can surely help resuscitate the dipping interest.

“Save for Railways and Police, no one is employing women footballers. Look at Yumnam Kamala Devi, Laishram Naobi Chanu and  N. Montessori Chanu; they did not get any jobs in Manipur and had to opt for Bihar as they landed jobs in Railways. Also, parents don’t encourage daughters to do jobs outside their home town, which is a hindrance as well,” quipped Bembem, who is employed in the Manipur State Police.

Sponsors often shy away from lending their helping hand to women’s football.

“I fail to understand why sponsors don’t want to come forward to support women’s football. Indian women’s football can only go up if there is significant corporate support,” Bembem didn’t hide her frustration.

Talking of the dwindling interest in women’s football, Bembem cited the example of the Bengal team.

“Well, Bengal women’s team was the team to beat in the late nineties. The national team had 8-9 players from Bengal, it was tough to overcome them in domestic tournaments. But in the last SAFF tournament in Sri Lanka, there was only one Bengal player in the side,” she pointed out.

The Indian men’s football team gets much better facilities than their women counterparts. Yet, the men’s team is ranked 166th in the FIFA rankings, while the women’s team is ranked 52nd. Bembem refused to draw any parallels, but dwelt on the need to play more international matches.

“We are ranked 52nd in the FIFA rankings. We need to play international matches on a consistent basis; if we are able to do that, then there will be a substantial improvement in our football standards and we will climb up in the world rankings. I can say with confidence that we can break into the top-20 if we get to play more international matches,” she says, sounding upbeat.

Women’s football is dominated by countries like Japan, Brazil, US and Germany. What is it that the Indian eves need to do to come anywhere close to them?

“You have got to realize that all these powerhouses of women’s football have a strong base. They offer coaching to youngsters at the under-12, under-14 and under-16 age brackets. Look at us. In Manipur, of course coaching is provided to youngsters at the under-12, under-14 and under-16 age levels, but the same cannot be said about the rest of the country. There is a huge difference in their physical fitness and ours. The need of the hour is to have a solid base; we need to focus on the grassroots level. There has to be more organized coaching at various age levels. We also must watch videos of how top teams play and try to learn from them,” Bembem puts things in perspective.

The Indian captain, who has scored 30 goals from 48 internationals, asserts that regular exposure trips are a must-have for women footballers.

“I went on a 15-day exposure trip to Germany in 1997. That experience really helped me. We need regular exposure tours to countries which are formidable forces in world’s women’s football.”

Manipur’s contribution to Indian women’s football has been immense. The North-Eastern state has regularly supplied players to the national team. Even at the 2012 SAFF Championships, the Indian team had ten players from Manipur – seven based in the state and three employed in Bihar.

“Women have huge passion for football in Manipur. Youngsters take to football at an early age. If we have more improved facilities, our girls can only get better,” she revealed.

Coach of the Manipur women football team

Bembem, who started playing for Yana Club in 1991 as a 13-year-old, and later for Sun Club in 1993, enjoys the role model status in the Indian team.

“All the girls look up to me. At times, if I’m injured, girls would tell me: ‘Didi, you just stand on the field and we will do the job for you.’ If I say something, they listen with rapt attention.”

Having served the country with distinction, Bembem is now looking to blow the referee’s whistle.

“I have applied for the AFC B license; if I secure the B license, I will apply for the A license.”

Do coaching plans in the pipelines indicate that she will hang up her football boots?

“I’ve not decided anything on that now,” Bembem fires as the parting shot.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I want to play in Europe, says national women's table tennis champion Kumaresan Shamini

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Kumaresan Shamini should be more or less satisfied with what she has achieved on the national stage. She recently won her third Senior National women’s singles table tennis crown, and more importantly got the ‘Poulomi Ghatak’ monkey off her back – something Shamini was as pleased as punch.

“Winning the national women singles table tennis crown obviously means a lot to me. Beating someone like Poulomi Ghatak gives you extra satisfaction – she had beaten me first in the final of the 2010 Senior Nationals in Guwahati and again in the final of the 2012 Senior Nationals in Lucknow,” Shamini says in an exclusive interview.

The Tamil Nadu girl relishes her competitive rivalry with Poulomi, but is quick to point out that all that is confined to the playing arena only.

“We do have a healthy rivalry going but off the table tennis playing arena. When we play for the country, we get along well and try to do well for India.”

Shamini, who won the 2009 and 2011 senior nationals, beating Divya Deshpande of Maharashtra and Mamta Prabhu, feels both have different playing styles.

“Poulomi has a strong forehand and she prefers to wrap up points in a hurry, while I am a kind of player who engages in long rallies.”

India's Shamini Kumaresan returns a shot

The experienced paddler, who was coached by the famous Rao brothers – A. Muralidhara Rao and A. Srinivasa Rao – exactly knows the improvement areas she needs to focus on.

“I need to work on my speed as it plays a big role in deciding the outcome of a match. I also need to sharpen my reflexes.”

The Indian Oil employee stressed on the importance of playing more Pro Tours if Indian table tennis has to go up the ladder.

“There are about 20-22 Pro Tours every year, but we play only 6. We are in dire need of more exposure, as ideally we should be playing at least 10-15 Pro Tours. The central government and the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) are doing all they can. Sponsors must come forward to support our table tennis players.”

A pre-quarterfinalist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, Shamini says the broadening gap between the Indian players and the powerhouse table tennis nations like China, Korea, and Japan can only be bridged through more intense exposure trips.

“Top players from China, Korea, Japan play more tournaments –they enjoy substantial international exposure – their speed and quick reflexes are their biggest strengths. The more we play with them better we will get.”

Shamini, who holds a world ranking of 242, has set her sights on moving up the ranking ladder.

“I want to break into top-150 or 100 by 2013-end. It’s not going to be easy. Hopefully, I can come anywhere close to 150 or thereabouts.”

The country’s top men singles players – Achantha Sharath Kamal and Souymajit Ghosh – are honing their skills by playing in the club circuit in Europe. Shamini wants to do the same.

“I really feel the need to play in Europe; I’m just looking for an opportunity. Training in Europe will surely help. Even Sharathbhai (Achantha) is trying to help me out. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
(L-R) Silver medalists Shamini Kumaresan, Mouma Das, Poulomi Ghatak, Prabhu Mamta and Madhurika Suhas Patkar of India show their medals at the table tennis women's team awards ceremony at the Yamuna Sports Complex as part of the XIX Commonwealth Games in New Delhi on October 8, 2010.

(L-R) Silver medalists Shamini Kumaresan, Mouma Das, Poulomi Ghatak, Prabhu Mamta and Madhurika Suhas Patkar of India show their medals at the table tennis women’s team awards ceremony at the Yamuna Sports Complex as part of the XIX Commonwealth Games in New Delhi on October 8, 2010.

The current national women’s champion endorses the idea of women paddlers regularly practising with their male counterparts.

“Women must play with men paddlers. Women paddlers usually have good control but men players have more speed and power something we can learn from them.”

Indian table tennis may not be making a splash in the international arena, but Shamini feels that the future looks bright for India.

“There is a lot of talent coming up – Ankita Das, Mamta Batra and Karnam Spoorthy are all young and can go places,” concluded the paddler, who made her senior debut in 2005.

No regrets about missing HIL now that I'm picked for India, says drag-flicker Gurjinder Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
Sports can be a great leveller. The experience of being out of the national side is one thing and the experience of earning a recall to the Indian team is quite another. Drag-flicker Gurjinder Singh is having an altogether different feeling. He was not part of the inaugural Hero Hockey India League and now he has finally earned a national call-up for the upcoming Hero Hockey World League Round 2 tournament, beginning at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi from February 18.

Undoubtedly, Gurjinder is in seventh heaven. “I’m very happy at my selection in the senior India team for the Hero Hockey World League Round 2. I have been training hard for Indian Oil and I’m fully fit to give my best for my country in the upcoming tournament,” the 20-year-old just couldn’t hide his excitement in an exclusive interview to Sportskeeda.

The talented drag-flicker, who hails from Batala in Gurdaspur district of Punjab, has no regrets about missing the Hero Hockey India League. “Initially, I was a tad disappointed at not being part of the HIL. But playing for India is the ultimate thing. Every youngster dreams of wearing the national jersey and I can’t tell you how excited I’m at being picked in the national side. Not featuring in the HIL doesn’t concern me anymore as I’m focused on doing well for India.”

Affectionately nicknamed ‘Gogi’ by his friends and close relatives, Gurjinder has been the most talked-about hockey player in the domestic circuit, not merely just for his WSH claim to fame but more for his stellar performances in various domestic tournaments.

The youngster scored 9 goals in the Surjit Singh Memorial Hockey Tournament and was named the Best Player of the Tournament. He scored 8 goals in the 65th All-India Obaidullah Gold Cup Hockey Tournament and was named the Best Defender of the Tournament. Gurjinder was also adjudged the Best Player of the Tournament in the Lal Bahadur Shastri Hockey Tournament. Even at the Seniors Nationals, Gurjinder was named the Best Defender of the Tournament and also won a Tata Nano for his exploits.

The Singh ménage was teeming with joy as soon as the news of Gurinder’s selection trickled in. “All my family members, relatives, friends were elated to hear about my selection. My dad, mom, my brother and sister were all very happy to see me get an India call-up,” he gushes.

Gurjinder, who was named the best player of the tournament in the rebel WSH and was the joint top goal-scorer along with Imran Warsi with 19 goals, steers clear of any talk on WSH.“ It is a closed chapter for me. I don’t want to say anything about it,” he brushes off any queries.

The Indian Oil employee, who was named as a standby in the initial national hockey probables for the first camp after the London Olympics, believes in learning the tricks of drag-flicking from fellow players. “I don’t have any role model as such. I try to learn from fellow players. I take tips from Jugraj Singh, Sandeep Singh, even Vokkliga Raghunath, who is my Indian Oil team-mate,” he quips.

Gurjinder was initially coached by Ranjit Singh at the Cheema Hockey Academy in Batala before shifting to Chandigarh, where he trained at the Chandigarh Hockey Acadmy under coaches late Jasbir Singh Bajwa and Gurvinder Singh.

His presence in the national team means there is more competition in the drag-flick department. “Sandeep, Raghunath and Rupinder are all good drag-flickers. I’m keen to share the national team dressing room with them. Healthy competition is always good for the team,” he says.

The drag-flicker wants to see India on the top of world hockey. “I want to help India win the Olympic gold as well as win the World Cup. I want to play a big role in India becoming a world-beater,” he concludes.

India has the potential to break into top-100, says Blue Tigers goalkeeper Subrata Pal

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Subrata Pal has been one of the country’s most dependable goalkeepers, more so when he is donning the national jersey. A string of impressive performances on the international stage over the years has only enhanced his reputation as India’s go-to-man when it comes to guarding the Blue Tigers’ citadel.

After a not-so-impressive stint with Prayag United in the I-League, Subrata is keyed up for the February 6 international friendly against Palestine to be played at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium in Kochi.

“I’m really focused on faring well against Palestine. I don’t want to think on what I did for Prayag United in the I-League. I’m training hard and want to do well for my country,” the soft-spoken goalie says in an exclusive interview to Sportskeeda.

There is always a line of thinking that the Indian team’s FIFA world ranking of 166 doesn’t quite justify their true potential. Subrata feels that playing more international friendlies would help the country climb up the rankings ladder.

“We just need to play more international friendlies, it’s as simple as that. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is doing a fine job of arranging international friendlies and this augurs well for the team. There is no shortage of football talent in India; I’m sure if we continue playing more international friendlies, we can surely break into the top-100,” he says, oozing confidence.

Nehru Cup: Syria v India

The likes of Bhaichung Bhutia (Bury FC) and Sunil Chhetri (Kansas City Wizards and Sporting Lisbon ‘B) have done the country proud, going on to ply their trade in foreign leagues. Does he believe that he is good enough to play club football overseas?

“I want to play club football overseas if an opportunity comes along, although I know it’s not so easy. European clubs for example need a goalkeeper to have a minimum height is six feet four inches or six feet five inches, so physically we lack in this aspect. Bhaichung (Bhutia) da and Sunil (Chhetri) have shown us the way – I feel proud to have played alongside them. If I don’t ever get a chance to play club football overseas, I would sincerely wish that some of the upcoming youngsters get an opportunity to play, because trust me, there is so much football talent in India,” he says matter-of-factly.

The 26-year-old footballer has no doubts that some of his team-mates definitely fit the bill to play in the best clubs of Asia.

“The likes of Gouramangi Singh, Manandeep Singh, Jewel Raja, Raju Gaikwad are youngsters, who have the skills to play at least in the top clubs of Asia.”

Talking of Indian footballers playing club football in foreign leagues, there is a perception that the marketing of Indian footballers is far from being organized. What is his take?

“You have raised a good point. Marketing of Indian footballers is still not so organized, but things are changing and will only get better in the future.”

Subrata, who turns out for big-spending Prayag United in the I-League, reckons the standard of I-League has improved by leaps and bounds. “The presence of quality foreign players has definitely raised the standard of I-league. Indian players are learning all the time and this bodes well for the sport in the country.”

Subrata has achieved a lot wearing the national jersey under the bar. He was one of India’s star performers at both the 2007 and 2009 Nehru Cup tournaments, which India won, pipping Syria on both occasions among other notable highs.

But the biggest high for Subrata was when India won the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup to book their berth in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup (held in Qatar) after a gap of 27 years.

“It was a great moment for me and my team-mates. I and Gouramangi (Singh) were juniors then, while seniors like Baichungda, Rennedy Singh were also part of the team. We celebrated big-time after we secured our Asian Cup berth,” he recalls fondly.

The Indian goalkeeper, who has received the best goalkeeper award thrice in the I-League, says that a good showing against Palestine would hugely lift the morale of the team ahead of the 2013 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers to be held at Myanmar.

“A good performance against Palestine will boost our morale as we prepare for the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers which will be held in March. We hope to grab one of the seven berths up for grabs for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup finals (to be held in Maldives) – the winner going on to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup slated to be held in Australia.”

Surprisingly, unlike most players, Subrata, who has made 46 international appearances for India, doesn’t have any set goals that he intends to achieve. “There is never any end to what one wants to achieve. My job is to keep working hard and leave the rest to the Almighty. I don’t have any expectations as to I want to achieve this and that,” quips the demure footballer, who is nicknamed ‘Mistu’. So how did that sobriquet ‘Mistu’ come about? “I think people find me sweet-natured,” he signs off.

Indian table tennis needs Saina-like performance, says national table tennis champion Soumyajit Ghosh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Table tennis has struggled to attain popularity in India. So many players have come and gone but the sport still struggles to grab the eyeballs. But one youngster – Soumyajit Ghosh – has shown enough signs of reviving the sport in the country.

The 19-year-old feels that the onus is on the players (including himself) to help the sport attain popularity. “Look, the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) has been supporting (us) big time with regular exposure trips to foreign countries. I think it’s our responsibility to do something big on the world stage, which can help table tennis become more popular. The one way to do it is to win major tournaments or at least make a big impression in such tournaments. We need to do what Saina has done for Indian badminton,” the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB) employee puts forth his thoughts, which seemed pretty mature for his age in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.

Indian table tennis’ most exciting prospect is on a roll after recently becoming the youngest men’s singles champion at the recently held 74th Senior Nationals in Raipur.

The Siliguri lad attained a new high in his fledging career, disposing off the country’s highest singles player Achanta Sharath Kamal 4-3. Undoubtedly, the big win means a lot to Soumyajit but he has his feet firmly planted on the ground. “Winning a national crown is indeed satisfying; I’m feeling good about it. But I don’t want to let any complacency creep into my game as I’m more focused on faring well in the 19th Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship, which will be held in Delhi from May 5-10.”

Seeded players are often hardly pushed, at least till the semifinals in national level tournaments. Although Soumyajit was tipped the red-hot favourite to win the crown, the upcoming Indian paddler feels that no win comes on a platter. “I may not have had too many down-to-the-wire contests but it does not mean that I had an easy path to my title win. Every match was well contested; sometimes the scoreline does not give the true picture,” he explains.

The North Bengal paddler entered the 2013 Senior Nationals with an ‘underdog’ tag, more of his own creation in a bid not to put undue pressure on him. “If I think I’m the favourite to win the national crown, I would only be putting pressure on myself. So when I came to Raipur for the Senior Nationals, I kept telling myself that I’m the underdog, which allowed me to play my natural game,” he observes.

“If I think I’m the favourite to win the national crown, I would only be putting pressure on myself.”

The maiden senior national crown was not the only maiden achievement of Soumyajit in the last twelve months – he qualified for the London Olympics by beating fellow Indian and 2012 national champion Anthony Amal Raj – the guy whom he showed the championship exit door in the semifinals of the 2012 nationals – to bag the South Asian quota place. At the Olympics, the youngster won his opening round singles match against Brazil’s Gustavo Tsuboi 4-2 before losing to North Korea’s Kim Hyok 1-4.

Without a shadow of doubt, Soumyajit was richer with the London Olympics experience but regrets that he could not progress beyond the second round. “I think I could have done better. I played my first round match against the Brazilian at around seven in the evening and went on to play my second round match the next morning at 11 am. I was jaded after my first round match and could not give off my best in the second round,” quips the youngster who missed the absence of vastly seasoned Achanta Sharath Kamal in London. “It would have been great to have Sharath with me in London – he has so much experience and his presence would have surely helped. I really missed his absence,” he admits candidly.

Soumyajit, who lost to Sharath in the semifinals of the 2012 Senior Nationals, has immense respect for the Indian world number 71. “Sharath is a nice guy, he is always willing to help me with my game. He has done so well for India; it is not so easy to survive in the European circuit, full marks to him,” he gushes.

But his role model is fellow Indian table tennis player Subhajit Saha. “I hail from Siliguri and so does Subhajit. I have known Subhajit since the time I started honing my skills at the Siliguri Table Tennis Academy. He is special for me,” Soumyajit observed.

Sweden is one place Soumyajit has made his almost permanent home over the last few years. The bubbling young turk has been training with Swedish table tennis star Peter Karlsson for a long time and owes a lot to him. “I have been training with Peter for a long time now. My stint in Sweden has brought about an improvement in my game. My fitness has rapidly improved, so has my footwork. I spent about eight months in Sweden last year and about six months in 2011,” he revealed.

Besides being coached by Peter Karlsson in Sweden, Soumyajit is coached by Mantu Ghosh and Subrata Roy. At the PSPB, he is coached by former Indian paddler Arup Basak.

The youngster, who made a smooth transition from the junior to the senior level by reaching the men’s singles semifinals of the 2011 Senior Nationals in Kolkata, has set his sights on improving his current world ranking of 175. “Going up the ranking ladder is my main priority. I’m hoping to break into the top-100 by 2013-end,” he rounds off on an optimistic note.

I want to have the acumen of a senior player, says talented Indian forward Mandeep Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
Ranchi Rhinos have played like a well-oiled unit in the Hero Hockey India League, with their performance prompting many to consider them as the only team who can seriously challenge the might of Delhi Waveriders for the HIL crown, although Delhi’s clinical 5-1 win over them in their own backyard on Friday may convince a few to think otherwise.

And one youngster who has grabbed the maximum eyeballs for the Rhinos’ superlative showing in the league has been 17-year-old Mandeep Singh. The bubbly Indian junior player was an unknown commodity in the Indian hockey circles before the start of the HIL, but has now emerged as a familiar face for hockey buffs with his impressive goal-poaching skills which saw him score six goals, including two in one crucial tie against Sahara Uttar Pradesh Wizards in Lucknow.

“It was a great away win for us. UP Wizards are a good side. We beat them in Ranchi and were more confident going into our away match. I’m really happy that I could score two goals for my side,” Mandeep recalls that game in an exclusive interview to Sportskeeda.

The Jalandhar boy, who is the second highest goal scorer behind India’s ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh, credits his good showing in the league to Rhinos’ intense two-week pre-tournament camp. “The camp allowed me to adjust to the different playing styles of our foreign players. We have players from Australia, Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and New Zealand besides our Spanish goalkeeper, and it was a nice opportunity to get our passing and combination right. The camp really benefited me to be in the comfort zone.”

A product of Jalandhar-based Surjit Hockey Academy, Mandeep is adjusting well to his right-out position despite the fact that he is a natural centre-forward. “I always play as a centre-forward for Surjit Hockey Stadium or for the Indian junior team. But in the HIL, our coach Gregg Clark asked me to play in the right-out position. Initially, I was not sure whether I would be comfortable in that position, but I’m more than happy with the way I have performed in the new position and enjoying it now,” he says with a tinge of excitement.

The learning from the league has been immense for Mandeep and the slew of international coaches is surely a boon for the Indian players. “Indian youngsters can richly benefit from these world-class coaches. I’m learning a lot from our coach Gregg Clark – he tells me to indulge in crosses or hit-ins from the flanks as the Indian players like to get inside the striking circle and take a crack at the opposition goalmouth,” the gaunt youngster reveals.

Having captain and a versatile playmaker Moritz Fuertse also ensures that there is never any shortage of learning for Mandeep. “I feel proud to play alongside a world-class player like Moritz Fuertse. He is always ready to help with his inputs on the game. He often talks about the importance of putting the ball in the opponent’s D with precision; the need for executing accurate crosses or hit-ins,” says the youngster, effusive in his praise for the captain.

The talented striker has no doubts that Ranchi Rhinos are firm favourites to win the Hockey India League. “We are a well balanced side and will win the league. We will have home support as the semifinals and the final will be played in Ranchi,” he says with optimism.

Mandeep was one of the stars of the Indian junior team which finished runners-up in the 2nd Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia. The Punjab da puttar scored three goals in the tournament, including two in India’s stunning 3-1 win over eventual champions Germany in the league phase. “We played really well to beat Germany in the league stage although we lost to them in the final. I remember scoring two quick goals in the first ten minutes of play. I was awarded Man of the Match in that match,” he recalls with a great deal of satisfaction.

HIL is a massive opportunity for the Indian youngsters to impress the selectors and the ONGC employee is elated to have lived up to his expectations. So, has he started thinking about a senior Indian team call-up? Pat comes a matured answer. “It’s an honour to wear the senior national jersey but I’m willing to wait for my opportunity and not think too much about earning a berth. I’ve to work on a few areas, like sharpening my acumen to play and succeed in the senior team.”

Modern hockey is all about attaining high levels of fitness. Is he doing anything to improve his scrawny frame? “I’m fully fit and can play for full 70 minutes. Of course, I need to be more robust so that I can overpower opposition players in tackles and during run of play,” he quips.

Mandeep’s father is a property dealer based in Jalandhar. Hockey runs in the Singh ménage. “My brother used to play hockey and I now play the sport with the same passion,” he signs off.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

One-touch hockey working well for Delhi Waveriders, says Indian hockey forward Gurwinder Singh Chandi

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Delhi Waveriders have looked the team to watch out for in the inaugural Hero Hockey India League maintaining its unbeaten run – gleaning 34 points from eight games. The Waveriders’ superb run has been possible thanks due to their potent forwardline, which comprises a slew of talented strikers.

Gurwinder Singh Chandi is one among them, who has hit the right notes during the league. Playing alongside many talented foreign strikers, Gurwinder acknowledges how much he is richer with the experience.

“It’s a wonderful experience for me to play alongside players of different countries, who have different styles. We have Germany’s Oscar Deecke who plays the European brand of hockey, which is more defence-oriented, while we have Matthew Gohdes (cousin of Jamie Dwyer) from Australia who plays attacking hockey like us. We also have Lloyd Norris-Jones from South Africa and Simon Child from New Zealand. It’s a nice feeling to share the dressing room with such a talented bunch of guys; it is also a big learning curve for me,” Gurwinder said in an exclusive interview.

The 23-year-old, who made his senior international debut during the 2008 Four-Nations Tournament in Australia stressed on the need for forwards to master their off-the-ball running. “Of the ball running is a crucial aspect of modern hockey. When player sends in a cross from the flanks or takes a hit-in, it is important for a striker not just to anticipate but also be in the right position to tap a cross or a hit-in towards the opposition goal. I’m working on it and HIL is allowing me to improve further,” the ONGC employee observed.

The biggest learning for Gurwinder is to restrain the Indian hockey players’ main forte – dribbling. Gurwinder felt that judicious use of dribbling is the key. “Look, foreign players really appreciate the dribbling skills of the Indian players. Many players in my team tell me not to engage in over-dribbling and play more one-touch hockey, which can benefit the team. Trust me, it has worked well for Waveriders,” the Indian striker remarked.

He cited the example of Jaypee Punjab Warriors. “Initially, they were struggling because they were carrying the ball far too long. But they are playing more one-touch hockey now, which is really working well for them.”

The Hockey India League has brought into focus the sleekness with which the foreign players employ the reverse hit – something the Indian players are not very good at. Gurwinder said it has a lot to do with the basics of a player. “Look, youngsters take up hockey in Australia or Europe on astroturf where employing the reverse hit comes naturally to them. In India, youngsters start playing hockey on grass where executing an reverse hit is not easy. On grass if you take 50 reverse hits at goal, you would hit the target probably ten times. Indian players are working hard and the same applies to me. I’m pretty confident about being a good exponent of the reverse hit in future,” the Delhi Waveriders forward quipped.

Gurwinder, who is a cousin of former Indian Olympian Baljit Singh Chandi, is happy to see Delhi Waveriders top the points table but is fully aware of the fact that complacency can spell trouble for the team. “We have started well but it doesn’t mean that we will win the league. There is a long way to go – still a few matches to be played. Of course, luck plays a big role in big games, so you always have to be on your toes,” he sounded a note of caution.

The national team dished out a decent performance in the FIH Champions Trophy as well as in the Asian Champions Trophy under captain Sardar Singh – isn’t it a sweet coincidence that Gurwinder is playing under him for DelhiWaveriders. “I feel proud to be playing alongside a world-class player like Sardar Singh. He is a great team man and always maintains a great dressing room atmosphere – sometimes not even hesitating to pull a fast one on his team-mates,” he said matter-of-factly.

The London Olympics was a sad chapter for Indian hockey and Gurwinder is willing to dwell on that debacle. “I think we looked really good during the pre-Olympics tour to Europe. We could not maintain that same form at London.”

The 2013 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup – India’s next international assignment – would see Gurwinder accomplish a personal milestone of playing 100 internationals. “I’m excited to know this. Hopefully I will fare well in that tournament.”

For any striker scoring goals is the ultimate mission on a hockey turf. So which goalkeeper Gurwinder finds the most difficult to score off? “Nicolas Jacobi. I think his defence is the most difficult to breach, gushed Gurwinder, who sees Jamie Dwyer and Teun De Nooijer as his most favourite players.