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.
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