October 23, 2001

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Versatile juniors set for greater glory

Qaiser Mohammad Ali,
Indo-Asian News Service

Indian hockey's triumph at the seventh Junior World Cup in Australia has thrown up another set of talented youngsters who can replace their seniors, some of whom are already ageing.

India has been doing extremely well in various junior international hockey tournaments. At present India is the Asian under-18 and Asian schools champion, while it finished third in an under-21 international tournament in August.

Team members pose with the Trophy Besides, the juniors have been touring abroad regularly to gain experience. This has contributed to producing a rich crop of young players, some of who have graduated to the senior teams in recent years.

From the team that finished runner-up to Australia in the last Junior World Cup at Milton Keynes in 1997, almost all 16 members have gone on to represent senior teams. Baljit Singh Saini, who led that team, is an outstanding example.

With the senior World Cup in Kuala Lumpur due in February-March, experts are hoping that the youngsters who lifted the junior World Cup at Hobart in Australia thrashing Argentina 6-1 in the final would be picked for the meet.

Former India players agree the triumph in Australia has given great hopes for the future.

"The juniors have given enough options to the selectors for the World Cup," said former Olympian and World Cupper Ashok Kumar. "It is a matter of confidence, and the boys showed that confidence in Hobart."

Former India captain Zafar Iqbal said it was important that the second string should replace the seniors whenever the need arose. "The junior team is a complete team," he said. "They played aggressively in Hobart and proved that out 5-3-2-1 style is still the best."

Vineet Kumar, another former captain, a versatile defender, said when these youngsters would next play against the players they faced in Australia, they would have a psychological advantage. "This team is not dependent on one or two players. They played as a team, which augurs well for India."

From the 18-member team that won the junior World Cup, many have the experience of having played for senior teams. Forward Gagan Ajit Singh, the winning captain at Hobart, and Deepak Thakur, the highest scorer with 10 goals, are among them.

Goalkeepers Devesh Chauhan and Bharat Chetri, defenders Bikramjit Singh, Jugraj Singh and Kanwal Preet Singh, midfielder Bipin Fernandez, and forwards Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur, Arjun Halappa, Rajpal Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Inderjit Singh and Tejbir Singh are the others who have either played for the senior team or have been among the probables at some stage or the other.

All of these players came up from the ranks. Since they were under 21 years of age, they were called to strengthen the junior team for the Hobart World Cup.

Private and government academies have also played a crucial role while supplying talented youngsters to the national teams. The Surjit Hockey Academy and the Ramesh Academy at Jalandhar, the Air-India Academy in New Delhi, the Sainik School at Kapurthala, Punjab, and the Sports Authority of India's (SAI's) hockey schools in Bangalore and Ahmedabad are a few academies that are doing well.

Even former India goalkeeper Ashish Balal and senior forward Dhanraj Pillay, who launched an academy in Bangalore recently, promise to add to the steady supply of versatile youngsters.

"The team that won in Hobart is the result of some hard work done over the last three-four years by players and coaches," said Kukoo Walia, a well-known international umpire.

"IHF has been grooming these boys, starting from the sub-junior category, for some years. And these youngsters have been constantly playing matches abroad to get familiarized with the pressures that come when playing at the international level," he said.

India, which has won record eight hockey Olympic gold medals, has done well in the last two years. In 1998 it won the Asian Games. The previous major wins were at the 1975 World Cup at Kuala Lumpur and the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

--Indo-Asian News Service

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