The Indian hockey team for the Olympic qualifiers has been announced, and there are few surprises in the squad that will lead India's charge at their last shot at ensuring a spot at Beijing.
While Rajpal Singh has retained his place despite his unexpected flare-up recently, young drag-flicker Diwakar Ram and striker Ajitesh Rai have impressed chief coach Joaquim Carvalho enough to earn a ticket to Santiago, Chile, which will host the qualifiers next month.
Performance in the test series against Belgium in Chennai earlier this year and the preparatory tour of Australia this month was the benchmark for selection. The only surprise omission is that of goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza, who has been out of action ever since the Belgium test series with hamstring injury. Baljit Singh and Bharat Chetri have been retained to guard the net.
As expected, drag-flicker Sandeep Singh fails to find a mention, despite the youngster's claim that he was fully fit and raring to go. VR Raghunath will lead India's drag-flick charge, with Diwakar as the second option. Besides Ajitesh and Diwakar, most of the team is the same as it has been for the past year, ever since Carvalho took charge.
Diwakar and Ajitesh, both part of the junior squad, are considered future hope and this will be their biggest opportunity to prove their worth. Besides drag-flick, Diwakar is good in defence, which will be marshaled by veteran Dilip Tirkey and William Xalxo.
India's strength will no doubt be their experienced and skillful midfeld, manned by the experienced Bimal Lakra and Ignace Tirkey and assisted by captain Prabodh Tirkey, Sardara Singh, Vikram Kanth and Gurbaj Singh. Rajpal, Prabhjot Singh, Tushar Khandker, Shivendra Singh and Bharat Chikara will lead the attack.
"This is the best possible and a well-balanced team. The juniors in the list are not far behind," Carvalho said. Great Britain, Austria, Mexico, hosts Chile and Russia are the other teams in the fray in the tournament.
Bharat Chetri, Baljit Singh; Defenders: Dilip Tirkey, V R Raghunath, Wiiliam Xalxo, Diwakar Ram; Midfielders: Gurbaj Singh, Prabodh Tirkey (captain), Bimal Lakra, Sardara Singh, Ignace Tirkey, Vikram Kanth; Forwards: Rajpal Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Tushar Khandekar, Shivendra Singh, Bharat Chikara, Ajeethesh Rai.
Kaushik back as women’s coach
While all the attention is focussed on the men’s Olympic qualifiers, the India women’s hockey team got a shot in the arm with former national coach MK Kaushik all set to take charge.
Kaushik, who quit after the Doha Asian games in December 2006, will be back at the helm for the women’s Olympic qualifiers, to be held in Baku, Ajerbaijan, in April. The preparatory camp for the same is currently on in Lucknow.
“Yes, I will be rejoining the team on Wednesday or Thursday,” Kaushik said here on Tuesday.
The Indian Women’s Hockey Federation (IWHF) had been insistent on getting Kaushik back for the important tournament. Kaushik had quit after he was denied permission by his employers, the Haryana sports department, to remain with the team, but he has now been allowed to resume national duty, after a gap of more than a year.
“The IWHF was very keen that I come back. The rest of the staff currently with the Indian squad will remain the same. GS Bhangu (who was chief coach in his absence) and assistant coach NS Saini will continue working with the girls,” Kaushik said.
Asked about India’s chances of qualifying for the beijing Olympics, Kaushik was cautious. “I have not seen the girls for some time now. I did not go to see the National Championships recently, so I have no idea. I can say anything only after I spend some time with the team,” he said.
Though no matches have been scheduled for the team to get them some match practice, the ongoing camp will continue till April 13, after which the team will leave for the qualifiers, beginning April 19.