Tuesday, September 30, 2014

India sneak past Korea 1-0 to set up final clash with Pakistan

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Playing a higher ranked side in front of their home crowd in the semifinals of the Asian Games was always going to be a tough ask and the way proceedings unfolded, it did look that India would have a tough job overcoming the Korean hurdle in Incheon.

The Sardar Singh-led side overcame the first half sloppiness and put up a much more enterprising second half performance to outwit Korea by a solitary goal to reach the final of the Asian Games. India will play the winner of the second semifinal between Pakistan and Malaysia.

The much-hyped match saw both teams exercise caution in the early exchanges. Incisive moves were not the order of the day in the opening quarter as both sides took their own sweet time to size each other up. India finally broke free in the second quarter forcing a penalty corner, but the Korean goalkeeper Lee Myungho brought off a save with his right hand, which resulted in another PC. India could not capitalize. SV Sunil had an opportunity to convert a half chance into a goal, but the alert Korean defence bottled him up nullifying that raid. Gurbaj Singh showed promise essaying a cross, but no Indian player was there to make the most of it as the half-time scoreline read 0-0.

The Koreans slipped into fifth gear in the second half and asked several questions to the Indian defence, and thankfully the Indians managed to find answers to those questions. Comeback man Gurwinder Singh Chandi who had had a sedate tourney so far, had a chance to do the star turn when he only had to tap the ball in, but only managed to bungle.

However, the slip-up did not cost India dearly as Akashdeep Singh once again underlined his liking for scoring goals against Korea finding the opening goal in the 44th minute off a nifty cross. The Indian youngster had scored a brace in India’s 3-0 win over Korea in their last meeting in the 2014 World Cup in The Hague.

Korea summoned desperate measures in the final quarter and gave the Indian defence some anxious moments when they won a penalty corner with two minutes remaining for the final hooter. India foiled that set-piece and held firm to book their final berth.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Indian women's hockey lose semi-final, face Japan for bronze medal

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The last time Indian women’s hockey team locked horns with Korea in an international fixture was at the 2013 Asia Cup in Ipoh, where they went down by the odd goal in three. And on Monday at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium the Indian eves, riding high on confidence following their 6-1 mauling of Malaysia, were brought down to earth by a Kim Darae goal as early as in the 3rd minute.

Early goals can be quite disturbing for any team, especially in the knockout stage even before India had hardly settled down. To the credit of the Indians, they took the early setback in their stride and mounted efforts to draw level and were rewarded when Namita Toppo rattled the Korean cage off a nifty pass from Vandana Katariya.

The Ritu Rani-led side were very much in the contest as the scoreline read 1-1 at the end of the opening quarter. The Neil Hawgood-coached side must have walked onto the pitch for the second quarter teeming with confidence, but the Koreans playing in front of their home crowd forged ahead in the closing stages of the second quarter when Han Hyelyoung converted a penalty corner in the 29th minute to ensure her side held the aces at the half-time break.

Indians needed to equalize early in the second half to press for a win, but it was not to be the case as Korea enhanced the lead through Park Mihyun in the 42nd minute leaving their opponents with a massive task of scoring at least thrice and book a final berth. India messed up a chance to reduce the deficit when Jaspreet Kaur’s power-packed PC was well saved by the Korean goalkeeper early in the final quarter.

Korea will now face defending champions China, who battled past Japan by a solitary goal in the 57th minute through a penalty corner conversion by Wang Mengyu. India will play Japan in the bronze medal play-off game on Wednesday.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

India pull off unconvincing 2-0 win over China, meet Korea in semis

This piece was published in Sportskeeda.com

The Chinese men’s hockey team are known to give the Indians a hard run for their money. We all remember the 2009 Asia Cup in Kuantan, where China stunned India with a 2-2 draw forcing the latter out of the semifinals of the Asia Cup for the first time ever. On Saturday at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium, the Indians were forced to dig deep as the Chinese offered staunch resistance and perhaps raised visions of a surprise win and sneak into the semis as winning was the only way they could make it to the last four stage, while a draw was enough for India to make the cut.

Both teams exercised caution and create few scoring chances in the first half. India struggled to dish out their known free-flowing hockey as Chinese were not easily giving them open spaces to mount their raids. Collectively, India failed to jell as a unit and had their first penalty corner in the closing stages of the opening half, but they wasted that opportunity as the half-time scoreline read 0-0.

India desperately needed to open their account as the doughty Chinese can always surprise with a late goal and seal their semis route, but the Indians really went for broke and Vokkaliga Raghunath, who messed up as many as eight short corner opportunities in the game against Oman, converted India’s second penalty corner with a fierce flick beating Chinese Xu Rui all ends up in the 40th minute.

Birendra Lakra chalked up a surprise second goal off a nice assist by Akashdeep Singh at the stroke of the third quarter hooter – clearly they turned things around in the third quarter.

India exerted pressure in the final quarter and forced three PCs but it all went abegging. China also gave the Indian defence some scare earning three penalty corners, but denied from scoring.

To tell the truth, India did pull through with a 2-0 win, but it was a pretty unconvincing win. They will need to tighten all the loose ends in the semifinal clash against hosts Korea on Monday.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Wushu coming of age in India!

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

In a country where cricket and a few other sports hog the limelight, combat sports in India face a host of challenges just to survive as a ‘competitive sport’. Sparse media coverage, lack of cash incentives, inadequate corporate assistance are some factors that stack up against athletes, who pursue this sport with diligence day in day out.

Wushu is one sport that has walked the ‘low-profile’ path over the years, but notwithstanding that the sport is beginning to show signs of coming of age.

The Indian wushu team’s two bronze medals at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games should be not swept under the carpet. The exploits of Yumnam Sanathoi Devi and Narender Grewal in Incheon must be seen in proper perspective. For a sport that struggles to grab newsprint space, the country’s wushu players have been doing what they can do best – perform and win medals on the international stage.

One wonders how many of us really know about Yumnam Sanathoi Devi – believe it or not she is a twice silver medallist in the World Wushu Championship. The Manipuri girl, who has now shifted to the 52-kg category, had scooped up the silver medal at the 2013 World Wushu Championship in Kuala Lumpur in the 48-kg category – the same category in which she picked up a silver medal at the 2011 World Wushu Championship in Ankara.

The World Wushu Championship are held every two years and the Indian wushu players have fared well no the world stage – they had won six medals (two silver and four bronze) at the 2013 World Wushu Championship and had snaffled four medals (two silver and two bronze) at the 2011 World Wushu Championship.

India missed out on another medal when W. Sandhyarani Devi crashed out of contention in the women’s 60-kg sanda event. Sandhyarani is the 2010 Asian Games bronze medallist – one of the two medals India won in that event – she also won the bronze at the 2013 World Wushu Championship. Inda also bagged two silver and one bronze in an International Wushu Meet in Georgia in June this year. Even at the Asian Junior Wushu Championship held in Manila last month, India won 1 silver and five bronze medals.

Clearly, all these performances indicate that wushu is making the right noises in India. The 22nd edition of the Senior National Wushu Championship was held in Jaipur in February 2014, where close to 800 players took part. Manipur is one state which is formidable in this sport churning out a slew of talents on the national horizon. States like Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand among others are steadily climbing up the ladder and making their presence felt in various domestic wushu tourneys.

Wushu was first introduced in India in 1989 by late Anand Packer with the formation of the Wushu Association of India (WAI) based in Lucknow and it soon followed the induction of senior nationals – the sport made its debut in the 2011 National Games in Ranchi.

The WAI clearly deserves praise for doing their bit to ensure India is producing medals on the big stage – two medals each at the 2010 Asiad and 2014 Asiad coupled with 10 ten medals in the last two World Wushu Championship (2013 and 2011) – must be enough indication that wushu is well on course to make an even bigger impact in the coming years. The 2015 World Wushu Championship will be the next biggest preparation for the country’s wushu players, the venue for which is yet to be decided by the International Wushu Federation (IWUF).

Indian hockey eves drub Malaysia 6-1 to set up semifinal clash with Korea

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

No team would ideally prefer permutations and combinations to come their aid in progressing to the knockout phase and the Indian women’s hockey team probably did not want to go through all that as they came out all guns blazing to trounce Malaysia 5-1 in a match where a draw was enough for them to reach the semifinals, while their opponents were in dire need of a win to make the last four stage.

The Ritu Rani-led side were in no mood to play for a draw at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium and meant business from the outset. Vastly talented striker Rani Rampal, who haven’t troubled the scorers in the first two games, opened the account for India as early as in the 4th minute and hardly had the Malaysians regrouped to mount a fightback, drag-flick expert Jaspreet Kaur drilled home a penalty corner to put her side in the comfort zone in the 9th minute.

With their tails up with a two-goal cushion in the first quarter, India further upped the ante as Namita Toppo enhanced the lead with a deft touch early in the second quarter (39th minute) before Rani Rampal scored her second for the day three minutes later (41st minute) as they continued to assert their dominance and led 4-0 at half-time.

Thus, India have finished second in Pool A behind defending champions China and will now play hosts Korea in the semifinals on Monday, while China face Japan in the other semifinal.

Pakistan overcome late Indian surge to win 2-1

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Number 13 is considered unlucky and for India it seemed like the 13th Asian Games meeting with their arch-rivals Pakistan spelt the doom for them as they went down by the odd goal in a Pool B fixture at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium in Inchoen, Korea. India-Pakistan hockey matches invariably churn out adrenaline-pumping action and it wasn’t any different on Thursday. Quite obviously, supporters of both teams were bubbling over with excitement as this was the first game between them in 2014. Over the years, fans have been imploring for more India-Pakistan hockey matches as they are sure shot crowd-pullers, but thanks to frosty diplomatic ties the scenario is such that India plays their arch-rivals only at neutral venues in multi-nation events.

It was the Greenshirts, who pressed the offensive button from the starting hooter and forced a penalty corner in the sixth minute, but the Indian defence minus injured Rupinder Pal Singh, just about managed to thwart that opportunity. India paid the same coin by creating their first penalty corner, but it was Pakistan’s turn to nullify that set-piece. India showed more purpose in the second quarter after the goalless first quarter as Ramandeep came close to scoring. India frittered away another short corner opportunity, but it seemed that the Blueshirts had control of the proceedings even as both teams took the half-time break with a 0-0 scoreline.
Pakistan reply back stronger

India were pushed on the backfoot when Pakistan took the lead in the third quarter through Umar Muhammad Bhutta. Umar, who score a hat-trick against Sri Lanka in the first game, triggered celebrations in the Green Shirts’ bench with a strike in the 38th minute, thus putting the fightback onus on Sardar Singh’s men.

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India needed to summon desperate measures going into the final quarter trailing 0-1 and Nikkin Thimmaiah breathed a sigh of relief restoring parity in the 53rd minute to raise visions of a honorable draw, but Pakistan were in no mood to play for a draw as they regained the lead a minute later through Waqas Muhammad.

Pushed to the wall, India needed to produce something out of the ordinary, but Pakistan held their nerves to close out a 2-1 win and now look poised to top Pool B and in all probability avoid hosts Korea in the semifinals. India will now have to beat China in their last league tie on Saturday and will in all likelihood face hosts Korea in the semifinal.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Brave Indian hockey eves go down 1-2 to 5th ranked China

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

China’s women’s hockey team have invariably asserted their supremacy over India in Asian Games. Five wins in six encounters going into Wednesday’s tie sums up their dominance over the years with the lone Indian win coming at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games. Let’s not forget that China – ranked 5th in the world – have won the Asiad gold thrice on the trot, diluting the stranglehold Korea used to have at this continental event (Korean have won it four times).

So given this scenario, the Indian women had a tough ask of halting the Chinese in their tracks. Of course, if the Ritu Rani-led side needed inspiration from any quarter, it was very much there – rewind to the 2013 Asia Cup in Ipoh, where India got the better of China 3-2 in a shootout after both teams were locked 2-2 in normal time to bag the bronze – that was some effort from the girls beating the reigning Asian champions – in the same event India gave the Chinese a tough fight before going down 0-1 in the league stage. And on Wednesday, the Indian eves brought their resilience to the fore, keeping the Chinese at bay in the opening quarter but it did not last long Liang

And on Wednesday, the Indian eves brought their resilience to the fore, keeping the Chinese at bay in the opening quarter, but it did not last long as Liang Meiyu gave their side the lead off a penalty corner exercise after goalie pulled off a decent save in the 19th minute. India ensured Chinese joy was short-lived as Jaspreet Kaur soon made the most of a penalty stroke as both teams went into half-time locked 1-1. China sprayed the ball around in the Indian ‘D’, but they were thwarted each time. Li Dongxiao essayed a good run but was foiled by the Indian defenders.
India muffed up a chance to make it 2-1 off a short corner when Rani’s shot was well-saved by the Chinese shot stopper. Indian defence survived some anxious moments in the final quarter – goalie Savie blocked a Chinese PC opportunity. Four minutes before the final hooter, India could have had the last laugh, but Jaspreet Kaur’s PC flick sailed over the bar. China made India pay for that PC lapse as Zhao Yudiao scored a field goal one minute from the final hooter to ensure their sixth Asian Games win over India.

Clearly, the Indian eves have every right to feel hard done by the final outcome after even coming close to not just drawing, but also pulling off a surprise win. India never looked like a world number 13 side playing the 5th ranked side – something they can be proud of even as they experience the ‘so near yet so far’ syndrome.

Never-ending rivalry of India-Pakistan hockey matches

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Crowd support for a team in any sporting event can sometimes pan out to be a ‘big factor’ in deciding the final outcome. And when arch-rivals India and Pakistan lock horns on the hockey pitch, spectators of both countries go an ‘extra mile' in rooting for their respective teams. Indeed, India-Pakistan hockey rivalry never fails to capture the public imagination. It really does not matter what is the name of the tournament – it could be the Olympics, World Cup, FIH Champions Trophy, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Asia Cup, Sultan Azlan Shah Cup or even the bilateral Test series – the rivalry remains cut-throat as ever.

Ever since India starting playing Pakistan on the international stage, expectations from the supporters of both countries have always remained sky-high. A win will be greeted with hero worship and unbridled adulation. Encomiums will be showered munificently on the players making them feel as if they are ‘special’. A defeat will cast a pall of gloom with the team being vilified to no end. Let alone flaying the team, the players will be castigated and the coaches will be given a mouthful across various mediums. Fate of some players and coaches are also sealed in such high-voltage encounters. What’s worse is that the rivalry would often translate into on-pitch unbecoming behaviour with players of both sides resorting to harsh tackles or fouls and also not losing out on a chance to give each other a mouthful caring a little about what colour of the card the umpire flashes. At times, spectators would get ugly at times, abusing the under-performing players.

As former India hockey captain Ashok Kumar – son of legendary Dhyan Chand – once said, the rivalry is strictly confined to on-pitch action. “Indian and Pakistan players are good friends off the pitch and not on it. It’s just that the intensity of an India-Pakistan game is much higher than any other game. People are extra pumped up for the occasion, ready to put their best foot forward.”

Clearly, there is a great deal of bonhomie among the Indian and Pakistan players and a clash is just a no-holds-barred contest and nothing more. Talking about fierce rivalry about these two teams, it is imperative to mention that Pakistan have always enjoyed their dominance over India – the Greenshirts have won most times over India and at the continental level, they hold the sway. India and Pakistan have met in the first six Asian Games hockey final and out of a total seven final meetings, the former have won only once losing the other six.
Even at the Asia Cup, it is Pakistan who have called the shots. India have met in four Asia Cup finals and again have won only once with Pakistan winning the first three Asia Cup finals on the trot.

India-Pakistan hockey matches are always watched with rapt attention and over the years both teams have engaged in some games that can be termed ‘memorable’, ‘controversial’, eye-catching’. We all remember the 1982 New Delhi Asiad final where India were humiliated by Pakistan in a 1-7 defeat in their own backyard. Only a year back, Pakistan had defeated India by the same margin in the Champions Trophy in Karachi. India also have chalked up some famous wins over Pakistan – the 5-4 win in the 1982 Champions Trophy in Amstelveen, where Rajinder Singh scored a fine hat-trick will remain etched in our memories. How one can forget India beating Pakistan 7-4 at the 2003 Champions Trophy in Amstelveen.

If Pakistan dominated India in eighties and nineties, India have turned over a new leaf in recent times. Barring a second-string Indian team’s 4-5 loss to Pakistan in the 2013 Asian Champions Trophy (the last India-Pakistan encounter), the Indians have beaten Pakistan thrice in four other recent clashes. At the 2013 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, India beat them 3-1 in the league phase before again pipping them 4-2 in the 5-6 place play-off tie. At the 2012 Asian Champions Trophy, India downed Pakistan 2-1 in the league stage before losing narrowly 4-5 to the same opponents in the final marred by poor umpiring resulting in strong protests from the former. At the 2010 Asiad, India also beat Pakistan 3-2 in the league stage, although it’s a different matter altogether that Pakistan went on to win the gold while India had to settle for the bronze.

India-Pakistan hockey matches have given us joy, but at the same time courted controversy. Say what you want, India-Pakistan games are always going to be crowd-pullers no matter what! The vociferous support of both teams will never ever die down.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Indian wrestlers poised to break 28-year Asian Games gold drought

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Confidence is a ‘big’ thing in sports. And it is this facet the Indian wrestlers will bank on at the Incheon Asian Games. If recent form is anything to go by, the Indian grapplers are in prime form and look poised to pose a serious threat to grapplers from Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan, Iran among others.
The country’s stupendous haul of 13 medals (six gold, five silver and two bronze) at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games made them the nation with the second highest haul behind Canada, who won one medal less than India (won 12 medals) but were the table-toppers having won seven gold medals.

There is a strong feeling that the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) is sticking to a well chalked-out programme to ensure optimum results on the world stage and also pave the way for the country becoming a wrestling powerhouse, which they are of course, well on course to attain in the future. The WFI choose to rest main grapplers for the World Championships in Tashkent so that they can focus on the Asian Games – not just that even the country’s three top coaches did not accompany the national team to Tashkent as a second-string side was sent to the World Championship so that the grapplers are kept fresh after the rigours of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Quite obviously, taking part in two big-tickets like Asian Games and Glasgow Commonwealth Games in one month would have taken a toll on the grapplers and the WFI took a prudent move to set their sights on Incheon.

The Indian wrestling contingent will be looking to improve on their three bronze medals they won in the 2010 Asiad. In fact, the biggest talking point is about India breaking the 28-year wait of Asiad wrestling gold (Kartar Singh last won it in 1986). Not many will disagree that the team minus Sushil Kumar, who opted to skip the World Championship and Asian Games so that he can focus on the 2016 Rio Olympics, have the ammunition to win the yellow metal. “Our wrestlers are training hard in Sonepat.Yogeshwar Dutt is our biggest gold medal prospect but I’m equally upbeat about all our grapplers, who have the tenacity to come through on the big stage,’ says Indian wrestling head coach Vinod Kumar.

The national coach has no doubts that the team will overcome the absence of Sushil Kumar. “Sushil is a type of wrestler who cannot be replaced. But then, there are others who are capable of doing the job. We hope to bag at least four or five medals in Incheon.

The 18-member wrestling contingent is expecting big things from Amit Kumar (freestyle 57-kg), Bajrang Kumar (freestlye 61-kg), Pawan Kumar (freestyle 86-kg), Satywart Kadian (freestyle 97-kg) besides Yogeshwar. Amit is riding high on confidence after picking up the gold at Glasgow CWG, and the ditto for Bajrang and Satywart both of whom bagged a silver besides Pawan who grabbed a bronze. Greco-roman wrestlers like Ravinder Singh (2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist) and Sandeep Yadav (2013 World Championship bronze medallist) are bullish about contributing to the medal hope.

Its not just that the medal hopes are hinged on men wrestlers. Our women grapplers are coming off a superb show in Glasgow as the likes of Vinesh Phogat (48-kg) and Babita Kumari (55-kg) will be angling for a podium finish after winning gold medals in the CWG. Geetika Jhakkar will also be seeking to have a good run after her silver in Glasgow, while Jyoti will strive for a medal after finishing fourth in the 75-kg category at Glasgow.

India cut Oman to size in 7-0 win

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

After a not so ‘happening’ performance in their Asian Games opener against 40th ranked Sri Lanka, India raised their game by several notches to pull off a 7-0 win over Oman. India’s profligacy came to the fore as they wasted a plethora of penalty corner, but can still feel happy about their second win on the trot, which was pretty much on expected lines. The 22nd ranked Oman – who were drubbed 0-9 by India in the 2006 Doha Asiad – kept the Indian forward line at bay in the early stages as the scoreline read 0-0 at the end of the opening quarter.

It was a case of missed opportunities as there was no shortage of attacking moves from the Indians, who forged ahead in the 18th minute when Rupinder Pal Singh drilled in a fierce drag-flick beating the Omani goalie all ends up. Rupinder struck again one minute later off a short corner and seemed to have twisted his ankle while carrying out the set-piece and was taken off the pitch as India hung on to the 2-0 lead at half-time.

The Sardar Singh-led side netted the third goal early in the third quarter when Akashdeep Singh capitalized on India’s eight penalty corner before Vokkaliga Raghunath converted a penalty stroke in the 39th minute as India held a 4-0 lead going into the final quarter.

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India upped their ante in the final quarter as Ramandeep Singh added the fifth goal in the 54th minute off a PC routine – his third of the tournament. Danish Mujtaba scored the sixth six minutes later and it was left to Vokkaliga Raghunath to unleash a power-packed drag-flick to turn the contest the modest win into a rout. It was the Coorg lad’s third of the tourney as India walked off the pitch on a satisfactory note after brushing aside the first game cobwebs.

India will hope for injured Rupinder to be fit as a fiddle for their crunch game against arch-rivals Pakistan on Thursday.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Asian Games: Indian hockey eves humble lowly Thailand 3-0

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The last time the Indian women’s hockey team rubbed shoulders with minnows Thailand at the 2010 Asian Games, it was a stroll in the park for them – they chalked up a massive 13-0 win. But on Monday, there were no easy pickings for the Ritu Rani-led Blueskirts, who muffed up several chances en route to a 3-0 win over Thailand at the Seonhak Stadium in Incheon.
The 53rd ranked Thailand eves were expected to receiving a pounding from the talented Indian forwardline, but the profligacy of the latter meant that they could avoid the proverbial ‘goal-bashing’. India mounted raids from the outset, but were denied any scoring opportunities in the first ten minutes of play. It was left to Poonam Rani – one of the goal-scorers in India’s 13-0 win over Thailand in the 2010 Asiad – to open the account in the 14th minute off a penalty corner. The Thai girls defied the Indians for the rest of the first half and trooped off the pitch with great deal of respect trailing by a solitary goal. The Indians found it hard to breach the Thai citadel and forged ahead only in the 39th minute through Vandana Katariya as they went on to hold a 2-0 lead at the end of the third quarter. The final quarter warranted India churn out a few goals to keep their goal average high, but it was only in the 53rd minute that Deepika made the scoreline 3-0 off a short corner. That was the last time India troubled the scorers as Thailand came off the pitch with a respectable defeat.
India next play formidable China on Wednesday.

Will SAI’s ‘performance review’ talk put Terry Walsh under pressure?

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The Indian senior men’s hockey team may have launched their 2014 Incheon Asian Games campaign on a winning note, but the team’s head coach Terry Walsh and Hockey India’s High Performance Manager Roelant Oltmans would be under the scanner after the Sports Authority of India (SAI) has recently gone on record stating that their fate will be decided after the conclusion of Asia’s showpiece event.

Of course, there is no harm is carrying out a ‘performance review’ of the foreign coaches, but its the ‘timing’ that needs to be questioned. Where was the need to go public and state that nothing but a gold medal by the men’s team at the Asiad would convince the SAI top-brass that the foreign coaches are indeed delivering?

History will vindicate that the timing of statements from top sports officials has not only courted controversies from time to time, but also created needless pressure on athletes/coaches. A recent media report stating foreign coaches associated with Indian hockey will come up for a ‘performance review’, is certainly not in good taste given the team was about to embark for the Incheon Asian Games.

At least, the announcement by SAI about putting foreign coaches on notice could have been avoided and could have been done after the Games were over. One is not sure whether SAI’s frosty relations with Hockey India has anything to do with it. We all remember how Hockey India came down heavily on SAI after the women’s team preparing for the Asian Games found their Patiala turf ‘dangerous’ with Roelant Oltmans even writing to the Sports Ministry in this regard.

The SAI did not hold back punches then with its Director General Jiji Thomson stating that Hockey India can use any other available turfs as the former was not insisting them to use only the Patiala turf. Whatever may be the relations between Hockey India and SAI, one must ay that SAI got it wrong by stating that the performances of the hockey foreign coaches would come up for review just on the eve on the Asian Games. It creates unwanted pressure on somebody like Terry Walsh to deliver. Knowing the thorough professional Walsh is, he is unlikely to get affected. But clearly, pressure or no pressure, the SAI could have been better off with the timing of their ‘performance review’ statements.

Ideally, such talk would have been seen in good light after the end of the Asian Games and not on the eve of it! We all want our hockey team to fare well and don’t want needless distractions.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Rupinder hat-trick lifts sloppy India in 8-0 win over Sri Lanka

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

It was a typical tournament opener for India – the often seen ‘first game sluggishness’ of the national team came to the fore as they locked horns with lowly Sri Lanka at Incheon at the Asian Games. It was crystal clear that complacency had crept into the Indian ranks as they dished out a performance bordering on mediocrity and lack of serious intent to go for the jugular.

Normally, a 8-0 win would be touted as a decent enough win for any side, but head coach Terry Walsh must have been downcast with the way wards played on Sunday. The Indian forwardline lacked the desired spark, especially Gurwinder Singh Chandi who had a poor day in office wasting several scoring chances and his woes were compounded when he was taken off the pitch after taking a nasty blow on his face off a deflection following an Indian foray in the second quarter.

Nikkin Thimmiah gave Indian an early lead in the 5th minute and it looked like Sri Lanka were hurtling towards another heavy defeat after their 0-14 drubbing at the hands of Pakistan in the opening tie on Saturday, when Rupinder Pal Singh converted a penalty stroke and later his drag-flick colleague Vokkaliga Raghunath whipped home India’s second penalty corner to give them a 3-0 lead in the opening quarter.

The usual flow of attacks from the Indians was absent as they were slow to mount their raids and though Chinglensana Singh and Ramandeep Singh made the scoreline 5-0, it appeared as if the Indian had left their aggressive streak in their hotel rooms when the need of the hour was to put it on display on the pitch.

Sri Lanka – playing in the Asian Games after a hiatus of 36 years – grew in confidence as the match wore and kept things tight in the third quarter as they allowed held that quarter goalless before Rupinder made it 6-0 scoring his second of the day at the stroke of the third quarter hooter.

Rupinder completed his hat-trick firing home India’s sixth penalty corner in the fourth quarter before Ramandeep added his second in the closing stages as Sri Lanka walked off the pitch with their heads held high even in a 0-8 loss.

India next play Oman on Tuesday.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

India seek to make the most of battered Sri Lanka in Asiad opener

The start of the Indian men’s hockey team’s campaign in the Asian Games against Sri Lanka has been made a tad easier by the mauling defending champions Pakistan inflicted on the latter. Clearly, the morale of the Sri Lankans will be at low ebb after the opening game thrashing, which will offer India a significant advantage in their tournament opener. Sri Lanka – ranked 40th in the world - are no way going to pose a serious threat to India; at best, they can only hope that they don’t lose by another big margin like they did against Pakistan.

India, no doubt, will enjoy the psychological advantage against the battered morale of the Lankans, who will be pushed hard to avoid a second consecutive defeat. From the Indian perspective, head coach Terry Walsh will be keen to see that the team racks up two convincing wins in their first two games so that they are not short on confidence in their much hyped clash with arch-rivals Pakistan on Thursday.

The Indians have a knack of starting tournament campaigns on a sluggish note, but at Incheon they must look to skirt such a scenario as it could dent their pool-topping chances in a big way. Skipper Sardar Singh will look to marshal his troops on the pitch and nothing but a facile win will satisfy the billion hockey fans of the country.

Making the right noises holds the key to India’s progress to the knockout stage and complacency should be a big ‘no’. We all know how India failed to qualify for the Asia Cup semifinals in 2009 for the first time ever because of a 2-2 draw with China. This time around China are pitted in Pool B alongside India and the latter must guard against loose play as it is not really difficult for stunning upsets to happen in modern hockey replete with fast-paced stuff.

Exclusive Interview: Indian boxers command lot of respect in the ring, says coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The respect Gurbax Singh Sandhu commands among boxers is phenomenal. After all, he is not just another ‘coach’ taking care of his wards for a particular tournament – he has served as the head coach of the Indian boxing team for close to two decades now since first taking charge in 1993. Boxers all across the country have plenty of admiration for Sandhu, who toils behind the scenes to make things ‘happen’ in the ring for India. His biggest achievement in his coaching career was producing India’s first Olympic boxing medal through Vijender Singh at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Dronacharya awardee coach spoke in an exclusive interview.


Q First of tell us how are the preparations going on for the Incheon Asian Games?

All our boxers are working hard – we delivered a phenomenal performance in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games where we scooped up five medals, including four silver medals. Both our men and women pugilists really performed above expectations given that our team hardly had any exposure tours before the event – it was the first time ever four Indian boxers had reached the final of the CWG.

Q What kind of medal haul you are looking at the Incheon Asian Games?

It’s difficult to say how many medals India can win in Incheon, but I can for sure say that our boxers won’t disappoint. All countries will be well prepared for the Games. Hosts Korea will pose a big threat – they always have a formidable line-up of boxers and by virtue of being the hosts they will be even more dangerous. Kazakhstan’s boxers are really solid and so are boxers from Japan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Philippines also have decent boxers in the lower weight categories.

Q The Indian boxing has been through a tough time with the International Boxing Association (AIBA) banning the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) and later the Sports Ministry derecognising the national body. Given this scenario, how would you assess the state of Indian boxing?

There is no doubt that our boxers had a tough time as they were unable to take part in international competitions under the national flag. Look, the only way to evaluate the boxers is to see them play in tournaments and since we did not have any exposure trip before the Commonwealth Games, it was difficult to know where we stand on the world stage. Despite all the odds, I believe Indian boxing in good health and have shown plenty of promise for the future. All the credit for the good health of Indian boxing must go to our boxers, the Sports Ministry, SAI and our boxing federation.

Q Star boxer Vijender Singh is missing the Asian Games owing to a hand injury. Is it a blow to the Indian contingent?

See, every boxer has a role and responsibility in the team, Vijender is an iconic boxer and has won the country’s first Olympic boxing medal. Not having him in Incheon is disappointing, but then we have Vikas Krishnan replacing him in the 75-kg category – remember Vikas had won the gold in the 2010 Asian Games in the lightweight (60-kg) category.

Q The Asian Games will mark a comeback for Akhil Kumar, who stunned the world champion en route to a quarterfinal appearance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Your thoughts.

It’s great to see Akhil in the national colours – he is very aggressive and will be out to prove a point. Having said that, I must say making a comeback is never easy – hopefully Akhil will live up to the expectations.

Q Haryana has seen boxers mushrooming from all corners of the state as compared to other states. Why is that other states are not able to churn out quality boxers in good numbers?

The Haryana government is perhaps the only one to announce cash awards for all state athletes, not just boxers. Look at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the state government announced cash awards of Rs 1 crore, Rs 50 lakh and Rs 25 lakh for gold, silver and bronze medal winners – what’s more the government announced a cash award of Rs 5 lakh for all state participants, let alone medal winners. Such massive encouragement from the state government is bound spur youngsters to chase glory as they know cash awards and a secure job is not beyond them if they win a medal in any international competition. The cash incentives from the government have been a big factor in more boxers springing up from Haryana.

Q It is fair to say that the Indian boxers command respect among opponents in the ring although we are far away from powerhouse like Cuba?

Cuba have a rich legacy in boxing and India to be honest are still not there, but yes ever since Vijender won the country’s first Olympic boxing medal things have changed. Now, opponents know if they are up against an Indian boxer they are in for a tough fight. As I have said before, Indian boxing is on a sound footing.

Q You have served as the national boxing coach for close to two decades now starting in 1993. You were given a contract extension last year till the 2016 Rio Olympics.

I wanted to step down last year, but the boxing federation, SAI and Sports Ministry wanted me to continue. I will help my team to make a podium finish at the Asian Games as well as in other international tourneys, including the Rio Olympics. As far as my coaching future is concerned, all I want to say is that I will never be a burden on Indian boxing.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Exclusive Interview: Gold is a realistic possibility, says India's star wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The absence of iconic wrestler Sushil Kumar has effectively meant that the mantle of spearheading the country’s challenge in the upcoming Incheon Asian Games rests on Yogeshwar Dutt. The 31-year-old gangling wrestler from Haryana will be looking to live up to the expectations of billions fans and corner India’s first wrestling gold in Asian Games in 28 years. The 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist and the twice Commonwealth Games gold medallist wrestler has recently shifted to a new weight category – 65-kg – after featuring in the 60-kg category for most part of his international career.
Yogeshwar - India’s best bet for a gold medal in the upcoming Asiad - spoke to Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.


Q How are you shaping up for the upcoming Incheon Asian Games?

By God’s grace everything has been going well for me as for my other team members. We are lending finishing touches to our preparations for the Asian Games and hope to come home with a decent bag of medals. I just need to stay focused and remain injury-free and results will be good.

Q At the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games you had a fairly easy run outclassing your opponents en route to gold. You were hardly stretched in the tournament.
I agree that I did not have to break much sweat in Glasgow. I remember beating my Canadian opponent 10-0 in the final bout. I guess I did not let complacency creep into my game and was better prepared than most others.

Q You have grappled in the 60-kg category for most part of your career – you won bronze in the 2006 Asiad, reached the quarterfinals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, won gold in the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games and bronze in the 2012 London Olympics. Now you have shifted to the 65-kg category recently in the CWG. Any significant adjustments you have to make to your game?
Not really. It’s all about adjusting to the new weight category and I have done it well so far. You saw at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games how I fared in the 65-kg category. I’m bullish about making a podium finish in the upcoming Asian Games in this weight category.

Q Tell us a bit about your favourite leg-twisting technique, which you employed so effectively first in the 2012 London Olympics and later in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
It’s a technique that has worked well for me so far and I happy about it. It always helps to surprise your opponent.

Q You lost your father a few days before you boarded the flight for the 2006 Doha Asian Games, where you scooped up a bronze. Your memories.
It was a traumatic period for me but I overcome that huge personal loss in the best possible manner winning a medal - bronze for my country. That medal was hugely satisfying given the circumstances.

Q India’s only double Olympic medallist wrestler Sushil Kumar has chosen to give the upcoming Incheon Asian Games a miss. How much will the team miss his absence?
Sushil Kumar is a sure shot medal hope for India and obviously the team will miss his absence. We minus Sushil will strive hard to make the country proud and ensure his absence does not dent our morale in any way.

Q How do you assess the competition from other countries in the Incheon Asian Games?
Every wrestler is training hard and it will not be easy. Grapplers from Iran, Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan will be formidable opponents and Indian wrestlers are also best in the business. We hope to bag at least 4 or 5 medals - a gold medal is a realistic possibility, something we have not been able to attain since Kartar Singh last achieved the feat in the 1986 Seoul Asiad.

Q What’s your take on the latest rule changes implemented by the world wrestling body?
I believe the rule changes are going to benefit the Indian wrestlers in a big way. The new rule changes will ensure no wrestler takes his bout for granted as anything can happen in the final round. Indian grapplers are known for their solid endurance and we will richly reap the benefits of it.

Q Finally, when will you shed the ‘eligible bachelor’ tag?
I will think about it after the 2016 Rio Olympics. For now, I want to stay focused on wrestling as I’m determined to come up with all guns blazing in the Asian Games as well as in other major international tourneys – the biggest being the 2016 Olympics.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why India are looking good to clinch the Asiad hockey gold?

Every time a major international hockey tourney beckons, it sets the hockey tongues in the country wagging as to how our national team is going to perform. This time around, it won’t be a tall exaggeration to suggest that the Indian team ‘on paper’ at least, appears the best to clinch the coveted gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games and book their berth for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Of course, translating ‘on paper’ strength into on-pitch reality is easier said than done. Having said that, one cannot deny the fact that the Sardar Singh-led side has played some really ‘solid’ hockey in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games; more importantly, the team mitigated the daft errors which cost them dear in tight games at the 2014 World Cup.

The point is why do we believe India can harbor serious hopes of a gold-medal finish in Inchoen? Hosts Korea, who are the highest ranked side in the tournament (ranked number eighth), will be always be dangerous opponents along with defending champions and 11th ranked Pakistan and 13th ranked Malaysia.

But to tell the truth, all these teams who are touted as traditional powerhouses in Asian Games, have hit a lean trot. Korea dished out a trashy display in the 2014 World Cup and were soundly beaten 3-0 by lower ranked India as they were consigned to the tenth spot. Pakistan failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time ever and the team is grappling with lack of international exposure and fund crunch, while Malaysia are licking their lips after their wooden  spoon finish at the 2014 World Cup with their head coach being given the marching orders.

It is pertinent mention that no ‘coaching strategizing manual’ tells a team to take any team lightly just because their recent form hasn’t been anything to write home about. Surely, the head coach Terry Walsh must have ingrained in the boys that there is no allowance for ‘complacency’ and every game has to be fought hard if a Rio berth has to be secured in Incheon.

This Indian team can no longer be called a ‘young talented side, as it has as many as eight players who have played more than hundred internationals. In fact, India looks a vastly experienced side with the likes of captain Sardar Singh, Gurbaj Singh, SV Sunil, PR Sreejesh, Vokkaliga, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Danish Mujtaba and Manpreet Singh more than capable of stepping up to the plate.

The Indian defence looks sorted out with Sreejesh manning the cage like a rock of Gibraltar. Gurbaj Singh has lent more depth to both the backline as well as in the midfield. He has taken some load off Sardar in midfield with young Manpreet always eager to shoulder new responsibilities.

The return of Gurwinder Singh Chandi has clearly added more teeth to the Indian forwardline. Chandi alongside Sunil, Dharamvir and Danish have gathered substantial experience over a period of time and have it in them to strike telling blows at opponents. Young turks like Akashdeep, Ramandeep and Nikkin will seek to complement their senior pros upfront.

Arch-rivals India and Pakistan being pitted in the same group has triggered more excitement among fans, but it also means they won’t meet each other in the semifinal at least, though the prospect of a lip-smacking final clash is always there.

For that to happen, India must overcome the likes of 40th ranked Sri Lanka, 22nd ranked Oman and 27th ranked China besides Pakistan before they can think about their chances in the knockout phase.
The year 2014 has been a decent one for Indian hockey so far and if the steady progress of the team under Terry Walsh ever since he took charge during the Hockey World League Final Round in New Delhi is any indication, it does not really seem out of place to believe that India can indeed pocket the gold in Inchoen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Podium finish is not beyond me in Asian Games, says India's first women Commonwealth Games medallist Dipa Karmarkar

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

It was Ashish Kumar who brought Indian gymnastics on the international sporting landscape, picking up a bronze and silver in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a bronze in the 2010 Asian Games. Four years later, Dipa Karmarkar gave women gymnasts plenty to look forward to by winning a bronze medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Even as the odds were stacked against her given the warring factions in Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) and lack of international exposure, the 21-year-old Tripura girl managed to rise above with a stellar performance in Glasgow.With a medal in her kitty, Dipa is now keen to better her CWG performance in the upcoming Incheon Asian Games.

We caught up with the talented athlete for her thoughts on competition, winning and development of gymnastics in India.


How does it feel when you know that you are the first Indian woman gymnast to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games?

Bahut accha lagta hai (feels really good)! I cannot describe in words how I felt winning the bronze medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. I nearly missed the silver by a whisker, but even then I’m pretty chuffed with the way I performed in Glasgow given that I started the proceedings on a sluggish note and had plenty of catching up to do.

You are nursing an ankle injury – have you recuperated fully from that?

I’m getting better and better with each day and hope I will be able to perform at my best in the upcoming Incheon Asian Games. It’s important for me not to carry any niggles into the event and stay fit as a fiddle. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and training hard for a medal in Incheon.

How would you assess the competitiveness flavour of the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. Do you think the Incheon Games will be your biggest challenge?

Look, I believe both Commonwealth Games and Asian Games offer stiff competition as you have formidable gymnasts from Australia, England and Canada in the former and redoubtable gymnasts from China, Korea and Japan in the latter. Getting a medal at both these events is a challenge and I want to improve on my bronze in Glasgow with at least a silver or gold in Incheon. I don’t think a podium finish is beyond me and I’m geared up for the challenge.

Is there a sense of satisfaction that your bronze medal effort in Glasgow is going to trigger a wave of popularity for gymnastics in India and encourage young girls to take up the sport?

Absolutely! I myself want to do whatever I can to help young girls take up gymnastics seriously. I’m confident that my performance in Glasgow must have emboldened many to pick up gymnastics as a sport. It was Ashish bhai (Kumar) who injected hope in the sport when he became the first Indian gymnast to win a Commonwealth and Asian Games medal in 2010. I think the sport is making the right noises in India.

There is always never-ending talk of infrastructure not being adequate for the sport to flourish in India. Your thoughts on the issue?
There is room for better infrastructure in India, although things are not bad at the moment. For example, foam pit, which can ensure athletes are injury-free is not available all over India. At the moment, foam pit is available in places like Delhi, Allahabad, Mumbai among a few others. The sport will get a big boost in India if foam pit is provided across India as players can train hard without the fear of getting injured.

Tell us about the cash rewards handed out to you after your bronze medal effort in Glasgow.

I received a cash award of Rs. 6 lakh from the central government and Rs. 5 lakh from the GFI. Such recognition helps us to stay motivated and spur athletes like us to achieve more glory for the country in the future.

Your coach Bisheshwar Nandi has been a huge influence on your playing career. What’s your take?

Bisheshwar Sir gets all the credit for whatever I have been able to achieve for India. I have been training with him for last 11-12 years and without him I wouldn’t have able to attain what I have today. He is a great coach, motivator and always ensures I keep raising the performance bar and never get complacent.

Your father, Dulal Karmarkar, was a weightlifter and is now a weightlifting coach at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Tripura. How come you did not take up weightlifting?

Just that my dad loved to pursue weightlifting while I had a liking for gymnastics and so pursued it (grins).

Monday, September 15, 2014

No team can be taken lightly in Asian Games, says men's hockey captain Sardar Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The Indian senior men’s hockey team will look to dish out a clinical performance at the upcoming Incheon Asian Games and thereby clinch a direct spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Sardar Singh-led side had put up a superb effort in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, finishing runners-up to world champions Australia.
The Indian skipper touche on various issues concerning the game in an exclusive interview.

How do you assess your team’s preparations for the upcoming Incheon Asian Games?

Well, we have been putting in the hard yards at the camp focusing on certain areas, where we feel that there is a need for improvement. We are working on our finishing as merely creating scoring chances is not enough. We got to convert them and that’s what big teams are made of – making the most of what one gets. We are training hard on the long corners as well as retackling besides looking after the other facets of the game. We will have 10-12 days to gear up in Incheon and hopefully we will be ready for the challenge when the event kicks off.

The silver-medal finish at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games was India’s first medal in any major event after the 2012 London Olympics. Your thoughts.

We are improving as a side and if you look at the World Cup we fought hard against higher ranked teams like Belgium and England. It was silly gaffes like late goals, which cost us dear in the World Cup. Daft bloomers came happening at the World Cup at crucial stages of the game, but we looked strong as a side. There was not much time gap between the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, but we worked on our game at the pre-CWG camp and it really helped as we managed to reach the final toppling higher ranked New Zealand after being down 0-2 at one stage. We offered stiff resistance to the world champions Australia in the league phase, and of course we lost tamely to them in the final, there were many lessons to be learned.

The winners of the 2014 Asian Games book a direct berth to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unlike the earlier Asian Games, do you think India’s job looks much easier considering Asian powerhouses Pakistan, Korea and Malaysia haven’t been in the best of form in recent times?

Not at all. In modern hockey, you can’t take any game for granted. Every team is beatable. Pakistan are the defending champions and will be determined to prove a point after failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first-time ever, while Korea as hosts will be pose a tough challenge to all teams. Malaysia also cannot be written off. Every match will be crucial and we are focused on our opening game and our first aim is to make it to the semifinals and we will take it from there.

Penalty corner conversions have always been a talked-about topic in Indian hockey. What’s your take?

We believe things are looking good in this area. Raghunath and Rupinder are doing a good job. I agree injection was a let-down at the World Cup, but we turned over a new leaf at the Commonwealth Games. We are achieving a 60-70% PC conversion rate in last few games, which shows a distinct improvement in the PC area.

Gurbaj Singh has been simply outstanding ever since he staged a comeback to the side after being dropped from the 2012 London Olympics team.

What should I say about Gurbaj? His performance has been extraordinary. He knows his job in the side very well and delivered when it mattered. Every player is trying to do his job and Gurbaj has performed outstandingly.

The Indian team is travelling to the Asian Games with only one goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. Drag-flicker Vokkaliga Raghunath is being groomed as a back-up option.

Yeah, Raghunath is having goalkeeping sessions at the New Delhi camp and Sreejesh is giving him tips all the time. He is just a back-up option, we hope his services are not needed and Sreejesh can manage all on his own.

Where do you think India stand as compared to the top teams like Australia, Germany and Netherlands?

Fitness-wise we are very much with them, but experience-wise they hold an advantage over us. We need to play these top teams on a regular basis and that way can improve our game and ranking. As far as other higher ranked sides like Belgium, England, Argentina and Korea are concerned we can beat them without really having to get overawed by them.

We need to play 40-50 games a year and Hockey India is working on that. Once we play these teams regularly, you will see more improvement in our game. Look at Australia and New Zealand or even the Netherlands and Belgium – they play each other frequently as they are geographically located close to each other.

Has Sardar Singh changed as a person with the mantle of captaincy?

Captaincy means additional responsibility; otherwise I’m the same player who wants his team to do well. I believe captaincy begins off the pitch and there must be camaraderie among players which gets reflected in on-pitch performance. There is no senior or junior in this Indian team, we always look to play as a unit and do our best for the country.