Easy start for hockey team in Olympic qualifier

New Delhi: Past masters of the game, India could not have asked for a weaker oposition than Singapore to kick start their hockey Olympic Qualifiers campaign here saturday as they look to avoid the ignominy of missing out on a berth for the quadrennial event for the second successive time.

India, with a record eight Olympic men`s titles, suffered a setback four years ago when they failed to make it to the 2008 Beijing Games for the first time in 80 years.

But come this time around, a favourable draw and familiar conditions have made the 10th-ranked Indians a strong favourite for the lone ticket to London, which is up for grabs from the six-team competition, comprising Canada (14th), France (18th), Poland (19th), Italy (28th) and Singapore (41st).

The upcoming qualification tournament is also the first big test for India`s Australian coach Michael Nobbs, who has done a commedable job with the Indians in terms of fitness and performances since joining the team last year. Because of his low-profile and the attacking style of hockey he preaches, Nobbs struck a chord with his wards from the word go and instilled belief in the players as well followers that India can regain its lost glory again.

Under Nobbs and exercise physiologist David John, the Indian have become much more fitter in the last seven months, which is clearly reflecting on their game. There is a blend of experience and freshness in the 18-member Indian squad which Nobbs has handpicked for the qualifiers.

In ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh, veteran Ignace Tirkey, Shivendra Singh, Tushar Khandekar and captain Bharat Chetri, the Indian team boasts of ample experience. In fact, Sandeep and Ignace are the only two players in the current team who have played in an Olympics (2004 Athens) before.

There is a mixture of youth and experience in every area of the team. While in Shivendra India has got an experienced striker, young Yuvraj Walmiki has turned our to be a prolific goal-scorer for his country.

Another youngster, S V Sunil, who has replaced former captain Rajpal Singh in the team, has been a revelation in the right flank, while as always Sardar Singh is the king of India`s mid-field.

The availability of three drag-flickers in Sandeep, V R Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, also give the Indians a rare upperhand over their opponents in the tournament. The only area which might give Nobbs some concern is India`s fragile defensive line. While Sandeep has never been rock solid at the back, Raghunath and Rupinder are starters and has the tendency to fumble under pressure.

It should be relatively easy outings for the Indians in the first two games against Singapore and Italy, who are way behind the Asian giants in international hockey. Singapore, which has replaced the United States` barely three weeks before the event, is a young team and comprises university students with little experience of playing international hockey, a reason why the column of international caps in their team sheet is blank.

"The matches against Singapore and Italy will be our practice matches," India skipper Chetri had said when asked whether lack of practice matches would be an impediment for his team ahead of the tournament.

Having already played in these conditions twice before, Canada (14) is expected to give India a tough fight in the competiton, while France and Poland could create some surprises.

India coach Nobbs, however, refused to take any team lightly and warned his wards against complacency. "Every match is crucial for us. So, we will play all the matches with same intensity," he had said. He also said that going there are no injury concerns for his his team ahead of the event. "Our fitness is good and I am happy to see that we are picking at the right time."