Ipoh (Malaysia), March 2 (IANS) India’s hockey team will begin a crucial phase, featuring a string of important tournaments, as they face Olympic champions Argentina in the opening match of the 27th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup here on Saturday.
Head coach Sjoerd Marijne has been insisting on a rotation policy as well as expanding the talent base keeping in mind the busy hockey calendar in 2018 that features the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April followed by the Hockey Champions Trophy at Breda, the Netherlands in July, the Asian Games at Jakarta in August, Asian Champions Trophy in October and the much-awaited World Cup in Bhubaneswar in November-December.
The squad in Ipoh includes three debutants in defender Mandeep Mor and forwards Sumit Kumar and Shilanand Lakra — a decision to give the youngsters the opportunity to showcase their talent but also keeping seasoned players fresh. It is also an underlining message to all of his wards that no one should take his place for granted.
The tournament, featuring World No.1 Australia, World No.2 Argentina, England, Ireland and hosts Malaysia, apart from India, will give Marijne the opportunity to narrow down on a core group before the high-profile events.
Veteran midfielder Sardar Singh, considered passed his peak, has returned after not featuring in the Hockey World League (HWL) Final, where India claimed the bronze medal.
Sardar will captain the side, while the responsibility of vice captain will be shouldered by forward Ramandeep Singh. Experienced defenders Rupinder Pal Singh, Birender Lakra and Kothajit Singh are not in the squad, and neither are seasoned attackers S.V. Sunil and Akashdeep Singh, captain Manpreet Singh and veteran goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh.
Sardar will play in the midfield along with S.K. Uthappa, Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma and Simranjeet Singh.
India’s defence wears a young look. It comprises of Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey, Surender Kumar, Mandeep Mor and Nilam Sanjeep Xess. The Indian goalpost will be kept by Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak.
Apart from Sumit and Shilanand, the forward line will feature Gurjant Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Talwinder Singh.
Olympic Champions Argentina, meanwhile, are in Ipoh without the services of their celebrated Coach Carlos Retegui who has resigned from the top job. It was under the tutelage of Retegui that Argentina had won their only Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2008 beating India 2-1 in the final.
Though it will be interesting to see how this World No.2 side fairs in the absence of Retegui, the squad remains strong with Gonzalo Peillat, Lucas Rossi, Juan Manuel Vivaldi, Pedro Ibarra, Matias Paredas who are bound to test the Indian team.
India skipper Sardar, said that they are not intimidated by the prospect of facing the Rio Games winners.
“While a winning start is what we look for, it’s important for the team to execute the structure we want to play in. There is no room for error when you play a team like Argentina and we cannot let their ‘Olympic champions’ tag intimidate us,” the 31-year-old said.
“I am hopeful we will stitch together a good performance on Saturday. The practice match against Australia has given the first-timers an insight into what they can expect and I am sure they will take that confidence into the opening game as well.” stated the 31-year-old skipper.
In the previous edition of this tournament, India had finished third after beating New Zealand 4-0 while Great Britain won the title after beating Australia 4-3 in the final.
Since the tournament’s inception in 1983, the Indian team has lifted the coveted Cup five times (1985, 1991, 1995, 2009, while they shared the trophy with South Korea in 2010).
In 2016, when Sardar last captained the Indian team, they had ended the tournament with a silver medal after losing 0-4 to Australia in the final.
Goalkeepers: Suraj Karkera, Krishan B. Pathak
Defenders: Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar, Nilam Sanjeep Xess, Mandeep Mor
Midfielders: S.K. Uthappa, Sardar Singh (captain), Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma, Simranjeet Singh.
Forwards: Gurjant Singh, Ramandeep Singh (vice captain), Talwinder Singh, Sumit Kumar (Junior), Shilanand Lakra.