Hockey: No Sreejesh, Raghu, Lakra in Azlan Shah Cup squad

New Delhi, March 21 (IANS) Hockey India (HI) on Monday picked a young squad for the 25th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup to be held in Malaysia from April 6-16, with established players like Akashdeep Singh, P.R. Sreejesh, Dharamvir Singh, V.R. Raghunath and Birendra Lakra missing, in a bid to try out “different permutations and combinations”, according to its president, Narinder Batra.

“This squad is nothing about seniors or juniors. We are trying out different combinations and permuations in the bid to prepare before Olympics. It is not about those players being rested or injured,” Batra told IANS.

However, defender Harmanpreet Singh, midfielder S.K. Uthappa and strikers Nikkin Thimmiah and Mandeep Singh have made a return to the 18-member national squad.

Karnataka player Nikkin was out of the side due to a hand injury. He even missed the major part of Dabang Mumbai’s campaign in the Hockey India League (HIL) which concluded last month.

Uthappa played a key role in Kalinga Lancers’s runners-up finish in the HIL and he has been rewarded for his hard work.

Young goalkeeper Akash Anil Chitke has taken Sreejesh’s spot as a new entrant, while midfielder Harjeet Singh, captain of the national Under-21 side, has also got his maiden national call-up, alongwith Surender Singh.

Chitke was declared as the ‘Promising Player of the Tournament’ at the 5th senior National Championship in 2015.

Centre-half Sardar Singh will captain the side, while senior forward S.V. Sunil is the vice-captain. The squad includes five defenders in the form of Rupinder Pal Singh, Jasjit Singh Kular, Kothajit Singh, Surender Singh and Harmanpreet Singh.

The midfield will be under the leadership of Sardar and he will be assisted by Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh, Manpreet Singh, S.K. Uthappa and Harjeet Singh.

Sunil, Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Nikkin will form India’s attack line.

Besides India, defending champions New Zealand, 2012 Olympic bronze medallists Australia, Pakistan, Japan, Canada and hosts Malaysia will also be taking part in the annual tournament.

With the 2016 Rio Olympics coming up a few months down the line, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup will serve has as a barometre to measure the teams’ preparations.

“India has a good record in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and we would like to keep it that way,” Sardar said.

“Being an Olympic year, this tournament assumes special importance as it will give us an idea where we stand. Playing against good teams like Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan and not to forget hosts Malaysia will give the team critical competition exposure.

“It will be a good opportunity trying out new things and new combinations in the tournament to see if they work,” he added.

In preparation for the tournament, the Indian men’s team is currently undergoing a training camp that started on March 7 at the SAI Centre in Bengaluru.

“The boys have been working hard as a unified unit and are geared up for the tournament ahead. Azlan Shah will be good testing ground for us right before the Rio Olympics and will be very crucial for the team. We are focused on improving the game technically and implement the right strategies,” chief coach Roelant Oltmans said.

Indian have enjoyed a good run in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup since it started as a biennial tournament in 1983 before becoming an annual affair since 1994.

India have won the prestigious tournament five times in 1985, 1991, 1995, 2009 and 2010, while earning the bronze on six occasions and finished runners-up once in 2008.

However, it won’t be easy to counter the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Malaysia. Hosts Malaysia will be eager to make an impact under their new coach Stephen van Huizen.

The round-robin format of the tournament will help the Indian team to get decent amount of competition exposure under its belt. It will also give them an opportunity to gauge the fitness level of the players, since the conditions in Ipoh around this time of the year will be extremely hot and humid. The Indian team has shown considerable improvement in the fitness levels in the past couple of years.

The squad:

Goalkeeper: Harjot Singh, Akash Anil Chikte

Defenders: Rupinder Pal Singh, Jasjit Singh Kular, Kothajit Singh, Surender Singh, Harmanpreet Singh.

Midfielders: Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh, Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh (Captain), S.K. Uthappa, Harjeet Singh.

Forwards: Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, S.V. Sunil (Vice-Captain), Ramandeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah.