Fresh legs in focus

The India men's hockey team didn't have the ideal start to their camp in New Delhi for the Azlan Shah tournament scheduled to be held in Malaysia from March 9. The first day saw just three players in Sandeep Singh, MB Aiyappa and Imran Khan in attendance because the bus carrying the players had a puncture on the way to the National Stadium.

Coach Michael Nobbs focussed his attention on drag-flicker Sandeep, one of the reserves who will be travelling to Ipoh. But the objective of the session was to figure out how the new speed gun worked rather than whether or not Sandeep was on the road to re-inventing himself.

In 2009, Sandeep was part of the India squad that won the Azlan Shah title after 13 years but he has fallen down the pecking order since. Though he top-scored in the Hockey India League, coach Nobbs had said that Sandeep can find a regular spot in the side only if he 'reinvents himself'.

In Ipoh, the drag-flicking duties will be assigned largely to Rupinderpal Singh and Gurjinder Singh in a team that will be without some of the more established names, namely Sardar Singh and VR Raghunath, both of whom have been rested following a hectic schedule that included Hockey India League and World League assignments.

While not underselling the squad, Nobbs said that the six-nation tournament in which the Indians won bronze last time around would be a difficult assignment. "I have no illusions about Azlan Shah which will be one of the toughest tournaments for us. We are going with a developmental squad. In fact we have more juniors than seniors. But it's necessary. We want these guys to get used to the idea of playing the senior team style. Whenever they make the main squad they should be able to adapt right away. " he said.

Nobbs added that the veterans needed to get a break. "Sardar and Raghunath have been playing non-stop over the past eight months. Their legs are covered with bruises. They really deserved time off."

And while the tournament may prove to be a tough initiation for the newer members of the squad, Nobbs asserted that it was a necessary part of the learning curve for the youngsters.

"Eighteen-year-old Mandeep Singh had an excellent HIL but he has realised that the international stage is a completely different level. We have another forward Akashdeep, who had a difficult start to international hockey, but has improved and performed at the Hockey World League.

"There are also a number of juniors in the side as well and the tournament will also be good preparation for them ahead of the Junior World Cup," he said.

The senior team will be back to playing its full strength at the Round 3 of the World Hockey League in mid-June featuring the top eight teams in the world and another eight teams advancing from round 2. Nobbs though feels that his side will be able to hold their own. "I think we are at that level. We reached the semifinal stage of the Champions Trophy after nearly 30 years. We have an excellent core group of players."

Flip flop on Azlan Shah participation

A stand-off between Hockey India (HI) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) over who will pay for the air tickets of the men's hockey team resulted in the squad first being pulled out of the Azlan Shah tournament only for the decision to be reversed an hour later.

Hockey India issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon stating that they were 'forced to withdraw' from the tournament , which begins in Ipoh (Malaysia) on March 9 after SAI refused to grant airfare.

However, they reversed the decision soon after SAI agreed to pay for the flights.

According to SAI director general Gopal Krishna, the government had sanctioned Rs5.5 crore for hockey for the ongoing financial year. However, Hockey India has already spent Rs 11.77 crore, Krishna said.

"If we overspend in one sport, we are answerable to the other federations as well. We have granted them airfare this time as we did not wish the team to suffer but henceforth, there will be no such exception," Krishna said.

The SAI DG said that Hockey India was told that the government won't fund the team's trip to Malaysia during a meeting in October. "They had accepted it back then," Krishna added. However, Hockey India secretary general Narinder Batra said: " The topic of India's participation in Azlan Shah was never raised in the meeting in October as the tournament was originally scheduled for May. Since it is now in March, Hockey India wrote to SAI in January and requested that they pay for air tickets." (ENS)

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