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Hockey team to experiment Down Under

Kuldeep Singh | May 27, 2003 20:51 IST

The Indian hockey team gets its first taste of big match play since the Busan Asian Games in the Hockey Australia Men's Challenge, the first leg of which begins in Perth, Western Australia, tomorrow.

The team, led by the versatile Dhanraj Pillay, plays its first match against Australia 'A', after Pakistan and Australia, the other two teams in the tournament, kick-off the two-week event.

India, who are looking to build a squad for the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands in August and the Athens Olympics next year, have come to Australia with a team that is a blend of youth and experience.

While there are several members of the Junior World Cup-winning squad, who were also in the team for the Asian Games where India finished with the silver medal, three seniors -- Baljit Singh Dhillon and Baljit Saini -- who were not considered for the Asiad after the disastrous World Cup campaign in Kuala Lumpur, and Mukesh Kumar -- who has been out of the side since the Azlan Shah tournament in 2001 -- have been included in the team. It remains to be seen how the three perform after the long layoff.

Before leaving for Australia, coach Rajinder Singh had said the matches in Perth and Sydney will help prepare the team for the future. How he intends to achieve that goal with at least six players in the team in their mid-thirties will be known after the two-week sojourn Down Under.

Nevertheless, Singh is optimistic of a good show. And he has reason to be, what with a strong defence, comprising goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan and defenders Dilip Tirkey, Kanwalpreet Singh and Jugraj Singh. Though the last named tends to err under pressure, the coach is banking on him to score from penalty-corners.

The coach's confidence also stems from the team's formidable half-line. In Ignace Tirkey, Bimal Lakra, Vikram Pillay, Viren Rasquinha and Prabodh Tirkey, all members of the victorious Junior World Cup-winning squad in 2001, he has a bunch of cool and experienced heads who also possess swift legs. In fact, it is surprising that the Indian Hockey Federation thought of recalling the injury-prone Baljit Saini, who at 29 looks a spent force.

Upfront, there is Pillay and the fleet-footed Prabhjot Singh and Gagan Ajit Singh on whom the onus of goal-scoring will rest.

After his boys beat a local side in practice yesterday, Rajinder Singh sounded confident, but hastened to add that winning is going to be secondary on the trip. "Winning is important," he said, "but the thrust is on experimenting and trying out new combinations.

"We are not looking at match results. We are here to prepare for the Olympics."

Singh said his boys have adjusted to the conditions in Perth, but are still to adjust to the faster surfaces on which the matches will be played. "We had a meeting to discuss how best to adjust to the faster grounds here. The boys are not used to them, but I am sure they will adjust," he said.

The tournament will see the implementation of two new rules relating to penalty-corners. One allows a defender to raise his stick above shoulder height to save a shot at goal. Previously, only goalkeepers were permitted to play the ball with any part of their stick above the shoulder. Second, the attacking team no longer needs to stop the ball dead before taking a shot at goal. The ball will, however, still have to travel outside the striking circle before the shot is taken.

Australia have named 24 players who will be shuffled between the Australia and Australia 'A' squads, while Pakistan, who are without penalty-corner ace Sohail Abbas and captain Mohammad Nadeem, both dropped on disciplinary grounds, are looking to build on their triumph at the Azlan Shah tournament in March.

The second leg of the series will be played in Sydney between June 4 and 8. Both legs will be played on a round-robin basis with the top two teams meeting in the two finals. Australia 'A', which is a 2003 development squad, has been included in the tournament, but is ineligible to contest either final and will play-off for third position in both legs.


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