Friday, October 31, 2014

Much-needed MS Dhoni tonic for Hero Hockey India League!

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The Hero Hockey India League (HIL) was perhaps the best thing to have happened to Indian hockey. The HIL seemed to have struck a right chord with all and sundry if the first two editions were anything to go by. Talented Indian youngsters, unheard off hitherto were thrown in at the deep end and while some may have floundered to hold their own against some of the world’s top hockey players like Jamie Dwyer, Teun de Nooijer, Moritz Fuertse, Barry Middleton, Simon Child, there were a few others thirsting at the prospect of showcasing their wares.

We saw how Indian youngsters Mandeep Singh, Affan Yousuf among a few others grabbed the HIL opportunity with both hands and let their stick do the talking. Stats-wise, the league was watched by 41 million fans across the country and was televised in 146 countries with its Facebook page attracting more than half a million likes – tell something about how the league has attracted eyeballs.

And with Indian men’s cricket team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni buying the Ranchi Rays, it does appear that the HIL is on the cusp of getting ‘even bigger’ than the first two editions after weathering a mild storm – pullout of the original owners of Ranchi and Mumbai franchises. Hockey India – the organisers of the league must have felt let down when the Dabur Group – owners of the Mumbai franchise – Mumbai Magicians pulled out of the 2015 edition, only to be followed by the Patel-PS Group and Uniexcel Group – the owners of Ranchi Rhinos.

To be fair, Mumbai Magicians did not have a great outing in HIL settling for a wooden spoon finish in the inaugural 2013 edition and just about avoided a bottom place finish in the 2014 ahead of debutants Kalinga Lancers. The withdrawal of Ranchi Rhinos was a tad surprising considering they were the 2013 champions and had finished third in the 2014 edition.

The league got a much-needed boost with Anirban Sarkar-owned Deccan Water Treatment Private Limited buying the Pune franchise and Radha Kapoor-founded DoIT Sports Management, who own the Delhi Franchise of the Pro Kabaddi League – Dabang Delhi – buying the Mumbai franchise. And the arrival of MS Dhoni ensures the league will feature seven teams in the 2015 edition, with the promise of emerging higher on the popularity charts just like the Indian Super League (ISL). Of course, it will be too much to expect HIL to match ISL in the immediate future, the seeds seems to have been sown for the HIL having that kind of aura sometime in the future.

Cricketers along with Bollywood celebrities are treated like nobody else are in this country, and the HIL can surely thrive on it. From the marketing perspective, the HIL can take new strides. Corporate houses make a beeline for the cricketers, which is no open secret and Dhoni’s involvement might serve not just Ranchi Rays but the HIL well over the long run.

Dhoni’s entry into the HIL cauldron may trigger other Indian cricketers and Bollywood celebrities to join the HIL bandwagon. John Abraham is a classic example – he co-owns HIL’s Delhi franchise – Delhi Waveriders and also Northeast football team franchise – Northeast United – and with the arrival of Ranchi Rays through Dhoni and Sahara Adventure Sports Group Limited, one gets the sense that more cricketers and Bollywood celebrities may walk down the HIL path. Dhoni much like John Abraham co-owns the Chennai football team franchise of the Indian Super League alongside Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan and Vita Dani.

We knows even the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohi, who co-own the football franchises of Kolkata, Kerala and Goa of Indian Super League, along with famed present and former cricketers could join the HIL knowing well what the sport can offer from the advertising point of view in the long run and the rich legacy it enjoys. There is a strong feeling that Dhoni’s HIL involvement could be just what the doctor ordered and might transform the Hero Hockey India League into a never-before-seen kind of thing!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Meet the 'Rupinder Pal Singh' of Indian women's hockey Jaspreet Kaur

This piece was published in Sportskeeda
Jaspreet Kaur is the female version of Rupinder Pal Singh or Vokkaliga Raghunath and is the chief penalty corner drag-flicker for India. And yes, when she unleashes them, she does pack a punch. There is little doubt that Kaur holds abundant promise not just as a handy drag-flicker, but also as a stout defender.

The 18-year-old Indian fullback relishes the challenge of being the main drag-flicker in the Indian women’s side. “It feels really good to shoulder the drag-flicking responsibility as I know that my team looks up to me to convert penalty corners, which can be so crucial in deciding the outcome of a match. Having said that, there is pressure as well as the weight of expectations can be a tad difficult to cope with at times. I always look to contribute for my side be it scoring goals from short corners or through defending,” she said in an exclusive interview from Bhopal, where the national team is attending the preparatory camp at the SAI Centre there for the 2015 Hockey World League Round 2 tournament.

The suave, soft-spoken defender is the newest talent to emerge from the all-famous Shabad Hockey Academy tucked away in a sleepy township of Shahbad in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana. This academy has been nothing short of a ‘player-producing factory’ for the national women’s hockey team over the years.

Kaur attributes her hockey career to her long stint at Shahbad’s famous Shabad Hockey Academy, where celebrated coach Baldev Singh take cares of the hockey students like his own children. “I hail from Kharindwa village close to Shahbad and it was my father who after seeing my interest for hockey enrolled me at the Shabad Hockey Academy in 2004, where I honed my skills under Baldev Singh Sir. Today, whatever little I have achieved in hockey I owe it to him. He has been a big influence in my career – a strict coach who knows how to get the best out of the girls. I remember those days when I used to stay in rented places in Shahbad – the struggles of frequently shifting rented places as per the desires of houseowners. It was not easy for a girl to shift places and focus on hockey, but I endured all that and strived hard at the academy,” Kaur said.

The Haryana girl, who has represented the country in 80 internationals, also spoke about how Shahbad is fast emerging as the ‘Sansarpur of women’s hockey’. “Girls here have the passion to play for India. They know if they work hard a career is possible in hockey. Talent-wise, there is no shortage here as girls of all age-groups train here in the hope of playing for India one day. I’m sure more girls will come up in future and serve the national team,” she said.

The confabulation veers towards the speed generated by men and women drag-flickers and Kaur makes her point. “There cannot be any comparison between the men and women drag-flickers. Obviously, the men generate more power than us and far as I’m concerned I’m constantly working to add more power to my drag-flicks. Drag-flickers need to do exercises for the shoulder and back as shoulder and back injuries can easily happen. I’m still going through the learning curve and looking to get better,” she said with a tinge of maturity beyond her age.

The gangling fullback was out of international action for more than a year after undergoing an operation on her right knee. But Kaur’s comeback was superb as she emerged as the team’s top goal-scorer at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games as well as the Incheon Asian Games, where India bagged a bronze. “The Commonwealth Games was my first major international comeback although I played the six Test series against Malaysia preceding that event. I scored six goals there and again at the Asiad I was able to score whenever the team needed. I was chuffed with the way things unfolded for me,” she said.
Kaur weaves past the Polish defence

Kaur’s last international tournament before her knee injury was the 2012 London Oltmpics qualifiers. So how difficult was it for her to cope with the injured-induced lay-off? “It was not easy. Given that I had a knee operation, I needed help to even move around in my house let alone other things, but I guess it’s all part of a sportsperson’s life. I have taken it in my stride and moved on,” she said.

The health competition in the national side bodes well for the future, but that also puts more pressure on any player making a comeback after a long lay-off. “Any player will find a comeback tough, especially after coming off a prolonged injury. Healthy competition is good for the team as it put all every player on their toes and leaves little room for complacency. So, that way it was important for me to perform in Glasgow and Incheon as I was determined to cement my spot in the Indian team,” she said.

The Indian women’s team have shown signs of marked improvement in recent times in terms of rising to the occasion against teams ranked higher than them. They defeated higher ranked China to win the bronze at the 2013 Asia Cup in Ipoh and nearly played out a draw against them in the Incheon Asian Games.

The Blueksirts eventually got the better of higher ranked Japan to corner the bronze medal. “The girls have put in a lot of effort and we are beginning to gel as a unit. I think we have the team to beat teams like New Zealand, Korea, China and England, but yes it will take some time before we can match teams like the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia and Germany,” she said.

One thing Kaur, who made her senior international debut during a Test series against Japan in 2010, is bullish about is the team’s fitness levels. “There was a time when people used to say that the fitness levels of Indian players were low but not anymore. We have really worked hard on our fitness and I don’t think this aspect is an issue anymore as we can hold our own against the top teams,” she said.

The defender accentuated the need for playing more international tournaments in order to keep the performance bar high. “Look, we won the bronze medal at the 2013 Asia Cup in Ipoh in September and then after a long gap we played a Test series against Malaysia, followed by the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. The more we play the better we will get,” she remarks.

Last and not the least, when we can see our women’s team attain a podium finish at the Olympics? “That is the ultimate dream of any player, but I think we should first concentrate on qualifying for the Olympics and featuring in major international tourneys like the World Cup and Champions Trophy. Once we improve our world ranking, we can play these sides regularly which will be a good thing for us,” she said.

Kaur, who has completed her graduation, is keen to land a government job. “I have done the form-filling exercise for Railways, let’s see what happens. Having a job will give a big boost to my playing career,” she said.

What’s the road ahead for boxer Sarita Devi

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

So much has been said about Laishram Sarita Devi’s controversial semifinal bout in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. There have been endless conversations in various quarters about her tearful ‘medal-rejecting’ incident. All the hullabaloo created over her ‘medal-rejecting’ episode was followed by wiser counsel with a written apology to the Olympic Committee of Asia (OCA), who let her off with a stern warning with the issue once again attracting newspaper space with the International Boxing Federation (AIBA) slapping a provisional ban on her and a few other Indian coaches much like the Indian boxing body was banned in December 2012 for failing to conduct its day-to-day operations befitting a sports body.

Boxing India secretary Jay Kowli says it is too much to expect Sarita to feature in the upcoming World Championship. “I don’t think she can make it to the upcoming World Championship. AIBA is unlikely to quickly announce their verdict just because the World Championship is just two weeks away. Given the circumstances I feel sorry for Sarita, but realistically she cannot play in the World Championship.”And now with the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), Sports Ministry and newly-created Boxing India offering their reply to AIBA’s provisional suspension, the big question that is on everyone’s lips is: what’s the road ahead for Sarita Devi.

Arguably the country’s second most popular women’s pugilist after MC Mary Kom, Sarita probably does not know which road she may have to undertake. Startlingly, too many theories are going around that the AIBA may lift her provisional ban if they are satisfied with the reply from the Indian body.

Why the timing of Sarita’s ban has become so much significant is because the 2014 World Amateur Women’s Boxing Championship is slated to be held in Jeju City, Korea in the second week of November. The innocence of Sarita comes to the fore when she recently told a news channel that she is hopeful of playing in the 2014 World Amateur Women’s Boxing Championship. Blame it on counseling or anything else, one can’t find fault with the star Manipuri boxer if she is ignorant about the nitty-gritties of how such a ban is lifted.

With barely two weeks for the 2014 World Championship, Monday (October 27) is the last date for the submission of reply to the AIBA ban. Of course, by conservative estimates even if the AIBA comes out with a positive verdict, Sarita will be left with little time to get on the flight to Korea for the World Championship, for which the one-day selection trials are going to be held in Delhi on November 4. So, it’s more or less clear that Sarita will not be part of the Indian team for the upcoming World Championship.
Kowli believes Boxing India along with IOA and the Sports Ministry want to ensure the provisional ban is lifted at the earliest. “We don’t want to be worried about Sarita missing the World Championship; we want AIBA to lift the ban so that Sarita can take in major international competitions from next year, especially in the 2016 Rio Olympics where she is a strong medal contender.”

The road ahead for Sarita may be replete with uncertainty for now, but knowing the circumstances under which she indulged in that medal-rejecting act should convince AIBA to take a lenient view of her and lift her ban as boxing fans across the country will be keen to see her box in the ring. Sarita will be better off in not bothering too much about what is not in her hands and put more focus on her training and steel herself to push the hard yards and make the country proud!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why is Gurwinder Singh Chandi not in India's Australia-bound squad?

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The non-exclusion of seasoned striker Gurwinder Singh Chandi in the 21-member Indian squad for the upcoming four Test series against Australia has triggered hushed whispers about whether his form led to the national hockey selectors wielding the axe on him. It may be pointed out that Chandi, who made a comeback to the national fold at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games after being out of competitive action for more than a year and a half owing to a prolonged ankle injury, by his own prolific ways had a pretty subdued Asian Games campaign in Incheon.

The 25-year-old Punjab forward failed to find his name on the scoresheet in any of the matches at Incheon, save for the pulsating shootout in the final against arch-rivals Pakistan, where he successfully converted to help his country corner glory. The ONGC employee, however, did score twice in his comeback tourney – Glasgow Commonwealth Games. He found the target in India’s 3-1 win over Wales in their tournament opener and later rattled the Scottish cage in India’s massive 6-2 triumph. But there was little doubt that Chandi was not at his best. To be fair to him, hitting the straps after a long injury-induced lay-off is never easy and the hitman was clearly not effective as one would expect him to be.

National hockey selection committee chairman and former India centre-forward BP Govinda feels it would be wrong to say that Chandi was axed. “Look, it is never easy to hit top form when you are making a comeback after a long absence. Chandi is our key player and we thought it will be wise to allow him rest so that he settles into some kind of form without exerting too much pressure on him. The Aussie trip will be more of a learning curve and we are sending 21 boys, and at the same time hope Chandi uses the rest period to work on his rehab and get better and better.”

Govinda reckons Chandi is part of the plans for the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Since he is part of the 33 core players, he is very much part of the 2016 Olympics program, so we want to handle him judiciously.”

The 21-member squad has the likes of Satbir Singh among a few others. But the names of Affan Yousuf and Yuvraj Walmiki – both hailing from Mumbai as well as Nitin Thimmiaah are missing. What’s Govinda’s take on the duo? “We have picked every player on merit. Affan Yousuf is down with typhoid while Yuvraj does not fit into our scheme of things now. As for Nitin Thimmiaah he broke his arm during the India ‘A’ team’s tour of Bangladesh and is recuperating.”

All and said done, Indian hockey would hope that Gurwinder Singh Chandi comes out all guns blazing and help further shore up the forwardline so that the Blueshirts are a potent force heading into the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Exclusive Interview: No such thing as star player in my team, says Indian junior hockey coach Harendra Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Indian junior men’s hockey plumbed a new lot when they finished a disappointing tenth amid all the hype and hoopla of being the tournament favourites at the 2013 Junior World Cup in New Delhi in December. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then – South African Gregg Clark – who coached the juniors in the World Cup, quit the job in early 2014 and was replaced by Harendra Singh. Harendra brings loads of experience to the team, having served as the national team coach at the 2011 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup besides being associated with the national hockey teams in various capacities.

The former India fullback took over the baton of junior team coach and performed exceedingly well on his first assignment, scooping up the Sultan of Johar Cup. Shrewd to the core, Harendra showed how he got the best out of his boys in Johor Bahru. The Dronacharya Awardee coach spoke in an exclusive interview.


Q. Congratulations to you and the Indian junior men’s hockey team on winning the Sultan of Johor Cup. You must be hugely satisfied to see your team make a podium finish on your first assignment as national junior men’s coach.

Absolutely! The boys really rose to the occasion and played as a unit. They had fire in their belly and were not undaunted by reputations of other teams be it Australia, Great Britain or New Zealand. I’m feeling proud to see the boys win the tournament. Of course, there is still room for improvement the boys will derive a lot of confidence from this title triumph.

Q What do you think is the secret of your team’s success at Johor Bahru?

Well, I have always emphasized on the five Cs – cool, calm, composed, confidence and communication. We keep telling my boys to remember these 5 Cs during team meetings or even during match situations. The idea was to let them know that they should remember these five Cs whenever they encountered any difficulty during matches. I must say that the boys have responded very well so far.

Q. You took over from South African Gregg Clark as the national junior men’s hockey team in April. How would you assess the overall junior talent in India?

Our team’s exploits at the Sultan of Johor Cup have shown that the future holds a lot of promise. There is abundant talent in the country and it is all about tapping those talents and giving them the desired training so that they can flourish. I have no doubts that the Indian junior hockey will get a big boost from this Sultan of Johor Cup triumph.

Q The likes of goalkeeper Abhinav Pandey and Harmanpreet Singh have been outstanding in the tournament. Do you think they were the finds of the tournament?

Look, all the eighteen members of the team did a superb job and helped us win the tournament. Obviously, Abhinav and Harmanpreet had a great run, but it does not mean the others did not chip in. Every team member were at their best and that’s why we won the crown. There is no such thing as star or hero in my team – all members are same for me.

Q There was a time in Indian hockey when drag-flickers were scarce. Do you think the scenario is now changing with the likes of Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar showing so much promise in Johor Bahru?

You have seen Harmanpreet and Varun – we have another good drag-flicker in Dipsan Tirkey but we did not expose him as the first two were doing well. I want the drag-flickers in my team to be efficient defenders as well as there is no point in having a player just to score goals off penalty corners. A fullback should be on the pitch for a lengthy period be it defending or scoring goals from short corners. I’m grooming these youngsters keeping this in mind.

Q At the 2013 Junior World Cup, India had talented blokes like Manpreet Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh and yet to settle for the tenth spot in front of our home crowd. What do you think went wrong in that tourney?

I always believed that having great individual players can help you win a few matches, but not a tournament. On the other hand, having a good win can pave the way for a title win. I don’t focus on individual brilliance; it’s all about collective brilliance of the team that matters.

Q You are considered one of the best Indian coaches at present.

I feel good if people think about me that way. I want to see India as a strong force globally and my contribution in the junior ranks can help my country in a big way.

Q It’s been many years since the national senior men’s team had an Indian coach. Do you think you can give a shot at the national senior team head coach job sometime in the future?

Honestly, I’m really happy to be playing part in developing the Indian junior men’s hockey team. I don’t harbor ambitions to become this or that coach; all I want is to contribute in making Indian hockey a strong team at the international level. It does not matter whether I’m a junior or senior team coach - as long as I’m contributing in some way its fine with me.

Q There is a line of thinking that our junior team do not play adequate international tournaments and looking at the 2016 Junior World Cup, don’t you think more international exposure is the key?

Look, we have our national camp coming up in New Delhi from November 15 and then in December we go to Australia to play in a tri-series tourney featuring hosts Australia and New Zealand. Our High Performance Manager Roelant Oltmans has laid out a nice international program for the junior team; we are looking to play 30 to 40 international games next year and in 2016, which will ensure we play adequate international matches till we head into the 2016 Junior World Cup. 

The writer can be contacted at:

Uncertainty looms over senior men's National Boxing Championship

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

A cloud of uncertainty looms over the senior men's National Boxing Championships, which is slated to be held in Mumbai in the second week of November. According to Boxing India (BI) sources, the fate of the Senior Men's National Boxing Championships is gripped by uncertainty given the fact that the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and the sports ministry are yet to grant it full recognition.

It is not clear whether Boxing India wants to postpone the nationals for an indefinite period. It’s possible that Boxing India may not be fully equipped to hold the nationals in a span of one month after successfully hosting the senior women’s National Boxing Championship in Raipur, where top boxers like MC Mary Kom and Laishram Sarita Devi were given special permission to skip the event owing to their hectic international schedule.

What needs to be understood is here that Boxing India (BI) secured provisional recognition from AIBA recently, which allowed Indian pugilists to play in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Incheon Asian Games. It may be pointed that the Senior National Women’s Boxing Championship in Raipur was the first event conducted by Boxing India. In normal course of events, a boxing federation receives financial support from the Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for hosting the nationals, but with Boxing India yet to obtain government recognition, any kind of financial assistance is out of the question.

The fact that Boxing India is a new body and just don’t have the financial muscle to host another nationals on its own sans government support. The timing of the Senior Men's National Boxing Championships could also be a factor in seeking sponsors for the same. Boxing India did spent a lot of money without any government support or sponsors for the smooth conduct of the Senior National Women’s Boxing Championship in Raipur and clearly one cannot expect them to plough a lone furrow all the time.

It remains to be what will be the next course of action from Boxing India. Indian boxers will be more than keen to punch to glory given that they have been starved of competitive action on the domestic circuit over the past few years because of the AIBA’S ban on the Indian boxing federation. Now that the AIBA has accorded them provisional recognition, Indian pugilists will be excited about sharpening their skills at the domestic level.

The writer can be contacted at:

Sultan of Johor Cup triumph - Juniors give us so much hope for Indian hockey!

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Indian hockey seems to be riding a wave of new-found confidence. Only weeks back our men’s hockey team gave us much to rejoice pocketing the country’s first Asiad gold in sixteen years, ably backed by our women’s team, who settled for a creditable bronze in Incheon. Hardy had the euphoria settled, our junior men’s hockey team turned in a stellar effort to retain the 2014 Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia.

A title win has to be applauded, but the feat of this junior team is all the more remarkable considering the fact that this was the second youngest team of the tournament and had only two survivors – skipper Harjeet Singh and vice captain Imran Khan – of the 2013 gold-winning team. Of course, the likes of Harjeet, Imran, Gurinder and Jarmanpreet had already played for the Indian senior team, even then the team was not expected to set the Taman Daya Hockey Stadium on fire. Clearly, the onus of retaining the crown was foisted on the young shoulders, guided by a shrewd and hands-on coach Harendra Singh. And the team responded splendidly after overcoming the initial cobwebs (sloppy 2-1 win over New Zealand and 0-2 defeat to Great Britain) to give Indian hockey so much hope for the future.

It doesn’t need a rocket scientist to understand that these junior lads are our future and it is so very crucial to groom them in a desired manner so that they are ready to fill in the shoes of Sardars, Sunils, Raghunaths in the years to come. So what really made this team tick? The biggest plus of this team was how well they played as a unit – each team member was determined to throw his body on the line for the team’s cause.

Goalkeeper Abhinav Pandey had an outstanding tournament and surely appears to be a handy future investment. Quality goalkeepers are hard to find these days and the Varanasi lad must be given the confidence to build on the gains in Johor Bahru. He was superb in each game, especially his telling saves in the final against Great Britain sum up his significant contribution towards the team.

The Indian fullbacks showed exemplary responsibility when it came to retrieving the ball in their own ‘D’. Fiesty Harmanpreet Singh, who struck vital blows with his lethal drag-flicks, slamming two magnificent hat-tricks, and emerging as the tournament’s top goal-scorer was another big talent that came to the fore. Harmanpreet did not score in the first two games and it seemed like India’s fortunes started changing for the better once he found his name on the scoresheet in the third tie against arch-rivals Pakistan – notching up 9 goals from four games is an astounding achievement.

He received staunch support from Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar, Gurinder Singh and Jarmanpreet Singh. Skipper Harjeet Singh was the calming influence in the side – controlling the midfield and complementing the forwardline with razor-sharp passes. The likes of Santa Singh, Simranjeet and Neelkanth exhibited tireless energy running hard on the flanks and always helping out the defence whenever needed.

Parvinder Singh was promise personified in the Indian forwardline – he looked good in deflecting crosses toward the goalmouth. Even, the troika of Imran Khan, Aarman Quereshi and Pawan Kumar did their reputations no harm, dishing out a performance that will stand them in good stead for the future. It’s not just the results that matter. The team displayed superb fitness levels, much improved trapping and ball possession and never seemed to be error-prone when hustled by opposition players.

The key thing for the Indian juniors now is to build on what they achieved in Johor Bahru. It is imperative that these boys get consistent international exposure as we all know that unlike our senior team, the junior team don’t get much competitive exposure as not many international tournaments are held across the globe. Hockey India can be better of holding Test series for juniors so that these boys form the fulcrum of our junior squad for the 2016 Junior Men’s World Cup to be held in India.

It may be worth recalling that the Indian junior men’s team finished a disappointing tenth in the 2013 Junior Hockey World Cup, which was also held in India. There is always room for improvement and one hope these juniors pursue the path of excellence and make it to the senior team one day. The exploits of the Sultan of Johor Cup clearly showed that junior talent is rich in the country and can serve as an effective supply line to the national senior team.

The writer can be contacted at:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

4th Sultan of Johor Cup Harmanpreet's final minute strike steers India to glory

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The 2013 Sultan of Johor Cup saw India did not break much sweat in prevailing over hosts Malaysia 3-0 in the final showdown. But the summit clash of the 2014 edition panned out to be a much tighter contest as India made a determined bid to retain the crown. The Harjeet Singh-captained side, who came into the final overflowing with confidence on the back of a sensational 6-2 win over Australia in the semifinals, rode on a final minute penalty corner conversion by in-form Harmanpreet Singh  to vanquish Great Britain 2-1 at the Tamam Daya Hockey Stadium in Johor Bahru.

The 2012 runners-up seemed to have carried off from where they left off in that game, looking neat in their possession and calm and composed even when they were hustled by the Great Britain players. India must have learn their lessons from their 0-2 loss to Great Britain in the league phase, dominating possession in the first half, although they were not allowed to mount consistent raids in their opponent’s striking circle.

It seemed as if India were doing everything in a disciplined manner except for scoring. Great Britain gave the Indian defence some jitters in the closing stages, but goalkeeper Abhinav Pandey, who is having a magnificent run in the tournament, pulled off two stunning saves to ensure a goalless opening half.

Pumped up with the pep talk from head coach Harendra Singh, the Indians were keen to provide the finishing touches to their well laid-out game plan. The move to up the ante in the second half worked to a nicety as India forced their first penalty corner of the match. Harmanpreet Singh, who riding high on two consecutive hat-tricks against Malaysia and Australia, unleashed a fierce flick beating the Britain shot stopper to his left in the 47th minute. The momentum was clearly with India as they continued on the offensive and won their second corner, but Varun Kumar’s potent drag-flick just sailed wide.

Great Britain got a much-needed lift when they equalized converting their first short corner in the 56th minute off an indirect conversion, finally beating the stubborn resistance of Abhinav Pandey. The goal came in controversial circumstances as the umpire green carded Indian skipper Harjeet for showing his mild dissent over the latter’s decision to award the PC.

Great Britain forced another short corner a few minutes later and this time and this Abhinav Pandey produced a good save. The umpire seemed to play spoilsport against when he green-carded goalie Abhinav Pandey when the latter expressed his pain after being hit by the ball, thinking to be a time-wasting tactics. India weathered all these adversities and fired the final salvo through Harmanpreet who scored his ninth goal of the tourney- emerging as the top goal-scorer.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

4th Sultan of Johor Cup: Stupendous India whack Australia 6-2, meet Britain in final

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

There have been quite a few occasions when the Indian senior men’s hockey team have been handed heavy defeats by Australia. The 0-8 defeat in the final of the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games, 3-8 defeat in a four nation tourney in Australia in 2009 and 1-7 loss at the Hockey World League event in Rotterdam in 2013 are few memories that come readily come to mind. On Saturday, the Indian junior men’s hockey team handed Australia a dose of their own medicine, inflicting a 6-2 drubbing to the 2011 runners-up in a crucial tie of the 4th Sultan of Johor Cup at the Tamam Daya Stadium in Johor Bahru. Of course, India’s passage to the final was made easy by already qualified Great Britain, who crushed the Aussies 5-1 in their final league match, which effectively meant that India only needed a draw against the Burras, who had no choice but to go all out for a win to force an Australia-Great Britain final.

The Harjeet Singh-led Indians nipped all such designs of the Aussies in the bud rattling up a 3-0 lead in the first nineteen minutes of play. India were quick on the ball and looked more assured with their possession, at times driving frustration in the Australian ranks. On-song Harmanpreet Singh, who had slammed a splendid hat-trick against Malaysia in the previous game, converted India’s first penalty corner in the 9th minute. Parvinder Singh doubled the scoreline making the most of a precise drill-in by Santa Singh from the right flank. Simranjeet showed his opportunism and dispossessed the Aussie players to log the third goal. Pawan Kumar slotted home India’s fourth goal in the 23rd minute after being set up by Armaan Quereshi. Australia reduced the margin through Brandon Honer a minute later – firing home a short corner after they muffed up the first three penalty corners.

Harmanpreet converted a penalty stroke close to half-time – the set-piece resulted from their fourth short corner. India enjoyed a commanding 5-1 lead at half-time. Harmanpreet racked up his second consecutive hat-trick to make the scoreline 6-1 early in the second half. Battered by the pounding from the Indians, the Aussies struggled to life their game and seemed resigned to their fate. Brandon Honer did pull off a second goal which was more off consolation than anything else.

India also exacted sweet revenge over Australia for their 0-2 loss to them in the 2012 edition. India now face Great Britain in the final showdown on Sunday and they will be vying to retain the crown they won last year beating Malaysia 3-0 in the final.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Why Narinder Batra as Hockey India secretary deserves a pat on the back

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Being a top sports federation official in India is far from being a bed of roses. And nobody knows it better than Hockey India former secretary general and now president Narinder Batra. One will not be surprised if the top HI functionary's critics have been overflowing over the years with no many really willing to see any ‘good’ in its intent to carry out the day-to-day operations of the federation. People are always in a tearing hurry to walk down the criticism path when it comes to Batra – he is invariably vilified so much so that any slightest attempt to laud him would appear like one has some personal interest behind praising him.

For a man who famously stepped down as the then Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) vice president after India for the first time failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, even slamming the then IHF President KPS Gill of autocratic functioning, Batra’s performance graph as Hockey India secretary general hasn’t exactly been deeply disappointing as many of his critics, especially his bĂȘte noire KPS Gill would like us to believe. Let’s understand one thing – Indian hockey has been enveloped by so much of cynicism built over many decades. Every move of the federation came under the scanner be it holding camps, team selection, coaches’ appointment, etc. Even if things were happening for the betterment of the sport, it was still looked upon with sarcasm.

We have consistently seen over the years that every time India loses a key match, all the talk revolves around improving hockey infrastructure, which leaves a lot to be desired. At times, Hockey India is slammed for lack of artificial turfs in the country – we got to understand that Hockey India is accountable for the team’s performance only and just does not have the financial muscle like BCCI to have Stadiums up and running in months or a few years. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Sports Ministry are principally responsible for upgrading hockey infrastructure in the country, and it’s ridiculous to see people come down heavily on Hockey India for inadequate infrastructure in the country. Performance-wise we can flay HI; that’s our right if they are underperforming, but surely not for lack of infrastructure – the government agencies, in fact, have a much bigger role to play than HI when it comes to improving hockey infrastructure.

If we glance at the bigger picture, one is not saying that Batra did not put a foot wrong – surely he must have, but if his intent is anything to go by, one can be rest assured that he puts interests of Indian hockey above everything else. Of course, the memories of national players refusing the Rs 25,000 cash award from HI after they won the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy in Ordos and the wooden-spoon finish at the 2012 London Olympics were some of the low points of his stint as secretary general.
But the Hockey India's top mandarin has shown that he was willing to take all the criticism in his stride and focused on the biggest goal – improving India as a hockey nation. It was during his stint that India reached the semifinals of the premier Champions Trophy after many years – their first tourney since the London disaster. The Indian junior women’s hockey team bagged a bronze medal in the 2013 Junior World Cup in Monchengladbach, catching many by surprise. The year 2014 saw India finish runners-up to world champions Australia in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, reaching the final ahead of higher ranked teams like England and New Zealand.

The year 2014 saw India finish runners-up to world champions Australia in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, reaching the final ahead of higher ranked teams like England and New Zealand and the men’s Asiad gold was like the icing on the cake not to forget our women team’ s bronze medal feat at Incheon. It was also in early 2014 that India managed to beat Olympic champions Germany 5-4 at the Hockey World League Final Round in Delhi.

Batra was also instrumental in shaping up the Hero Hockey India League, which has been a success, creating a platform for some latent talents to showcase their wares. He was the man who started the trend of offering an apology through a press note when the team performed below-par in an international tourney – he was also the first to start the gesture of paying a cash award to any men player who made his senior international debut besides giving the national team a fitting send-off before the team leaves overseas for an international tourney - things unheard of during the term of KPS Gill.

Clearly, the four-year stint Narinder Batra as secretary general can no longer attract derision. Of course-, Batra-bashers will never rest in peace and always look at an opportunity to pounce on him, but one firmly believes Indian hockey has moved forward after the London catastrophe under him as HI secretary general. And if we recall memories of some of the former officials of the federation, Batra appears more acceptable, someone who inspires confidence among fellow officials. Let’s not miss out on an opportunity to give Batra a pat on his back!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

4th Sultan of Johor Cup: India overwhelm Malaysia 4-2 to keep final hopes alive

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The Indian junior men’s hockey team kept its hopes of reaching the final of the 4th Sultan of Johor Cup alive after they got the better of hosts Malaysia 4-2 at the Tamam Daya Stadium in Johor Bahru.

The Harendra Singh-coached Indians did exert pressure on the Malaysian defence and forced a slew of penalty corners, but they had to wait until the 25th minute to draw first blood. Harmanpreet Singh converted the team’s fourth penalty corner. Hardly had the Malaysians charted out their fightback plans, Harmanpreet struck again from the set-piece two minutes later.

India held on to the two goal lead at half-time.

The Malaysians regrouped splendidly and notched up two quick goals in the first seven minutes of second half. The match was thrown wide open, but Harmanpreet pulled India ahead rattling the cage in the 55th minute. India were better off in avoiding tense final moments and they precisely did that as Varun Kumar converted a penalty stroke in the 63rd minute to make the scoreline 4-2. The home side had seven minutes to draw the contest, but India held firm to close out a feisty 4-2 triumph.

India will now have to beat Australia in their final league tie on Saturday to harbor hopes of a final berth, where they may end up facing Great Britain or Australia. This was India’s second win over Malaysia in this event – in the 2013 edition final India beat them 3-0 in the final. They had drawn 3-3 in the league phase of the 2013 edition as well as playing out an identical  3-3 draw in the 2012 edition after having lost 1-5 in the inaugural 2011 edition.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

India juniors crush Pakistan juniors 6-0 in Sultan of Johor Cup

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

India-Pakistan hockey rivalry never gives an impression of fading out no matter whether the senior or junior or sub-junior teams are involved. Barely two weeks after India won the Asiad gold in Incheon, the rivalry was renewed again as the India-Pakistan junior teams slugged it out at the Taman Daya Stadium in Johor Bahru, Malaysia in the 4th Sultan of Johor Cup.

Indian colts have maintained a vice-like grip over Pakistan in the Sultan of Johor of Cup so far – they have never lost to their arch-rivals – beat them 5-1 in the 2011 edition, played out a goalless draw in the 2012 edition and thumped them 4-0 in the 2013 edition. India maintained the same sequence outclassing Pakistan 6-0, thus chalking up their third win in four meetings at this event.

Pakistan took the field on Wednesday, in a desperate bid to improve the head-to-head record and showed their intent two penalty corners in the first ten minutes of play. The Greenshirts were guilty of profligacy as India took went the same route wasting their first two short corners in a no-holds-barred contest.

India finally took the lead when vice captain Imran Khan scored in the 22nd minute of a rebound off their third penalty corner. The Harendra Singh-coached outfit were on cloud nine when Parvinder Singh made it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time.
Armaan Quereshi took the wind out of Pakistan’s sails scoring a wonderful field goal to make the scoreline 3-0 early in the second half. Harmanpreet Singh whipped home a short corner to allow India enjoy a four-goal cushion. Varun Kumar converted another penaltycorner to net their side’s fifth goal with three minutes remaining for the final hooter.

Armaan Quereshi added his second for the day in the closing stages to pave the way for a 6-0 shellacking of Pakistan as they walked off the pitch with bubbling with confidence ahead of their two crucial league ties against Malaysia and Australia.