India aim to make a mark at the world stage

By: PTI
India will open their campaign in the HWL Final against world champions and title holders Australia in Pool B on Friday

Bhubaneswar, November 30: An Asian powerhouse for a while now, India will aim to make a mark at the global stage when they host the creme de la creme of international hockey for the third and final edition of the World League Final, starting here on Friday (December 1).

India will open their campaign in the elite HWL Final against world champions and title holders Australia in Pool B on Friday. Barring a few occasional losses, India have been ruling the roost in the continent, the most recent among the triumphs being the Asia Cup crown in Dhaka earlier this year. But once a giant of the game with as many as eight Olympic gold medals, India would be striving to ensure that they are seen as more than a regional bigwig.

Against world no. 2 Australia, India have had limited success in recent times. India have lost to the Kookaburras in the Champions Trophy, Azlan Shah and Commonwealth Games in the last few years. And it would be a Herculean task to upstage the mighty Australians in the opening game of the eight-nation tournament featuring all the top teams of the world.

The HWL final, in fact, will be the first real test for India's new chief coach Sjoerd Marijne, who took over just two months ago from the legendary Roelant Oltmans. Marijne might have tasted success in his first assignment -- the Asia Cup -- but the HWL Final will be a completely different ballgame for him. The Indian selectors, while sacking Oltmans, made it clear that success at Asia level won't be a benchmark and demanded results at the world stage.

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Since taking charge, Marijne hasn't made any major change to the playing style or strategy of the team. Instead, the only new thing or idea he has brought into the side is letting the players decide the style of hockey they want to play. He has focussed on backroom preparation, a method which has put more responsibility on the shoulders of the players.

Marijne's style of working seems to be delivering at least going by the results of the Asia Cup, a title which India won after 10 years, beating Malaysia 2-1 in the final. With a series of big events lined up for next year -- the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and World Cup --, Marijne would be looking at the HWL Final as an opportunity to test the strengths and weaknesses of the side. This would be the hosts' chance to better their bronze medal finish at the last edition of the tournament in 2015 at Raipur.

The Indians will field a mix of youth and experience to be led by the dynamic Manpreet Singh, who has taken Sardar Singh's place in the midfield. In Harmanpreet Singh, Sumit, Dipsan Tirkey, Gurjant Singh and Varun Kumar, India have some bright youngsters who excelled at the big stage in the Junior World Cup last year.

For the experienced duo of Rupinder Pal Singh and Birendra Lakra, the event is an opportunity to return to the national team after being sidelined by injuries for a considerable amount of time. Amit Rohidas is another player who will be making a comeback, riding on his fantastic outing in the 2017 Hockey India League.

Meanwhile, Australia will also be under a new coach in Colin Batch, who did a splendid job with New Zealand in the last few years. The Australians, known for their aggressive style, will mean business from the word go and would like to add another feather to their glorious hockey history by defending the title here.

The HWL Final will be Australia's last tournament in 2017, ahead of a big year when the Kookaburras will compete in the Commonwealth Games at home and the World Cup.

As the reigning World, Champions Trophy, Oceania Cup, Hockey World League and Commonwealth Games title champions, few can dispute Australia's dominance in the game. But after enduring a torrid time at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where a sixth-place finish was their worst since 1960 and the first time that they had failed to win a medal since 1988, Australia would be desperate to reclaim their top spot in international hockey.

India are placed in a tough Pool B which also features England and another European powerhouse Germany, while Pool A comprises Olympic champions Argentina, Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Meanwhile, in the other game of the opening day, Germany will face England.

Story first published: Thursday, November 30, 2017, 17:01 [IST]
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