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Olympic hockey qualifier: India set for lowly Singapore test

February 17, 2012 15:42 IST

Past masters of the game, India could not have asked for weaker opposition than Singapore to kick-start their Olympic hockey qualifying campaign in Delhi on Saturday as they look to avoid the ignominy of missing out on a berth at the quadrennial event for the second successive time.

India, with a record eight Olympic men's titles, suffered a setback four years ago when they failed to make it to the 2008 Beijing Games for the first time in 80 years.

This time around, a favourable draw and familiar conditions make the 10th-ranked Indians strong favourites for the lone ticket to London, which is up for grabs from the six-team competition, comprising 14th- ranked Canada, France (18th), Poland (19th), Italy (28th) and Singapore (41st).

'Indian hockey must emerge from cricket's shadow'

The upcoming qualification tournament is also the first big test for India's Australian coach Michael Nobbs, who has done a commendable job with the squad in terms of fitness and performances since joining last year.

Because of his low-profile and attacking style of hockey he advocates, Nobbs struck a chord with his wards from the word go and instilled belief in the players as well followers that India can regain lost.

Under Nobbs and exercise physiologist David John, the players have become fitter over the last seven months, which clearly reflects on their game.

There is a blend of experience and freshness in the 18-member Indian squad which Nobbs has handpicked for the qualifier.

In ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh, veteran Ignace Tirkey, Shivendra Singh, Tushar Khandekar and captain Bharat Chetri, the Indian team boasts of ample experience. In fact, Sandeep and Ignace are the only two players in the current team who have played in an Olympics (2004 Athens) before.

There is a mixture of youth and experience in every area. While in Shivendra India has got an experienced striker, young Yuvraj Walmiki has turned out to be a prolific goal-scorer for the country.

Another youngster, S V Sunil, who replaced former captain Rajpal Singh in the team, is a revelation on the right flank, while, as always, Sardar Singh is the king of the mid-field.

The availability of three drag-flickers in Sandeep, V R Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, also give the Indians a rare upper hand over their opponents in the tournament.

The only area of concern for Nobbs could be the team's fragile defence.

While Sandeep has never been rock solid at the back, Raghunath and Rupinder are starters and have the tendency to fumble under pressure.

It should be relatively easy outings for the Indians in the first two games, against Singapore and Italy, who are way behind the Asian giants on the international stage.

Singapore, which has replaced the United States barely three weeks before the event, is a young team and comprises university students with little experience of playing international hockey, a reason why the column of international caps in their team sheet is blank.

"The matches against Singapore and Italy will be our practice matches," India skipper Chetri had said when asked whether lack of practice matches would be an impediment for his team ahead of the tournament.

Having already played in these conditions twice before, Canada (14) is expected to give India a tough fight in the competition, while France and Poland could create some surprises.

India coach Nobbs, however, refuses to take any team lightly and warned his wards against complacency.

"Every match is crucial for us. So, we will play all the matches with same intensity," he had said.

He also said the team has no injury worries going into the tournament.

"Our fitness is good and I am happy to see that we are picking at the right time."

Teams:

India: Bharat Chetri (goalkeeper, captain), Ignace Tirkey, Rupinder Pal Singh, Sandeep Singh, Kothajit Singh, Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, Yuvraj Walmiki, Saravanjit Singh, V R Raghunath, Tushar Khandeker, S K Uthappa, P R Sreejesh, Danish Mujtaba, Shivendra Singh, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, S V Sunil, Birendra Lakra.

Singapore: Samudra Setya Putra Pang Chian Ong, Mohamad Suhaili Mohamad Farhan, Muhammad Baquir Asali, Harjeet Singh, Mohamed Sabri Yuhari, Nur Ashriq Ferdaus, Mohammad Alfian Samsuri, Enrico Elifh Abdul Lathif Marican, Silas Abdul Razak Noor Shah, Chia Kai Bin, Karleef Sasi Abdullah, Yi Ru Tan, Muhammad Haseef Salim, Mohamed Ishak Ismail, Muhammad Shafiq Abdul Rashid, Muhammad Fazri Mohamed Jailani, Mohamad Farhan Kamsani, Muhammad Hidayat Mat Rahim.

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