A question that cropped up time and again during the Hockey World League Finals in Raipur last December was about lack of a viable alternative to PR Sreejesh in the Indian goal. And that raised another question regarding the lack of chances and exposure for reserve goalkeeper Harjot Singh as India was depending too much on first-choice custodian Sreejesh.
Sreejesh has performed consistently for the last few years but has at times looked overworked and in much need for rest. However, with the team looking to ratchet up points in its quest for improving world rankings, the coaches depended on Sreejesh to provide the much-needed surety in the goal.
But with just four months to go for the Olympics, the team management led by chief coach Roelant Oltmans and the selectors has decided to test at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia, starting on Wednesday, the reserve goalkeepers so that the team can work out its combinations before the year’s two big events, the Champions Trophy in London in June and the Olympics in Rio in August.
Thus, Harjot Singh and young ’keeper Akash Anil Chikte will have an opportunity of coming out of Sreejesh’s shadow and showing their mettle in this tournament involving seven teams --- World champions Australia, defending champions New Zealand, Canada, Pakistan, hosts Malaysia and Japan besides India.
The selectors have also decided to rest seasoned drag flicker VR Raghunath and give junior India drag flicker Harmanpreet Singh an outing to prove that he is ready to take over from his senior rivals. Junior India captain Harjeet Singh too gets some exposure of senior-level hockey.
The ‘experimentation’ at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2016 indicates a refreshing change in attitude in Indian hockey as thus far the event in Malaysia has usually been taken as a chance to win an international medal and not an opportunity to build team. India have mostly gone to the Azlan Shah Cup with their full-strength squad, aiming to win medals, while other top teams have used it as an event to blood and test youngsters for stronger battles.
With medals in international events involving top teams drying up for India, Azlan Shah was a chance of winning medals, which necessitated this attitude. India have won the Azlan Shah Cup, which started in 1983, five times and the record is second only to their Olympics gold count (8) as they have won the Asian Games gold only thrice.
However, by giving a chance to young and reserve players, the selectors have also sent out a message to senior players that they can’t take their position in the team for granted. This refreshing change in attitude bodes well for the team and should help develop the squad, if persisted.
This year’s Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, which is the 25th edition of the prestigious event -- the only annual international-level competition in Asia, is an important stop in India’s preparation for the Olympics as it involves three other teams that have qualified for Rio – Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who came in place of Great Britain which withdrew a few months back.
Australia have included a number of young players in their squad -- Kookaburras’ head coach Graham Reid has made six changes to the squad that won the Hockey World League Final in Raipur last December, the most notable of which are the returns of youngsters Blake Govers, Tom Craig and Flynn Ogilvie, as have done New Zealand, which were the last team to qualify for the Olympics, coming in place of South Africa. With Pakistan, as usual, and Malaysia, at home, being strong competition, Sardar Singh’s India will get a good run in the competition.
It will be a good test for India, who won a bronze medal last year, and Oltmans should experiment as much as possible without bothering about the results. Young players like Harmanpreet, Akash Chikte, Harjeet Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah, who has missed recent international tournaments due to an injury, besides reserve goalkeeper Harjot Singh should get to play as much as possible as the experience they gain in this event will help India in the long run.
The seven teams will play each other in a round-robin format with the top two finishers in the league playing the final. India open their campaign against Japan on Wednesday and play against Australia the next day. They meet Canada on April 10, face archrivals Pakistan on April 12, defending champions New Zealand on April 13 before rounding off their league engagements against hosts Malaysia on April 15. The final and classification matches will be played on April 16.
India have won the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup five times (1985, 1991, 1995, 2009, 2010) finished runner-up in 2008 and bagged the bronze medal on six occasions.