India's return to the Champions Trophy for the firs
t time since 2005 comes through a wildcard invitation, and the team is well aware that their performance at the State Hockey Centre will be under scrutiny. The Champions Trophy marks the first international assignment for the Indians after the London Olympics, apart from the nine-a-side International Super Series in Perth on way to Melbourne.
The Indian team's lone victory in Perth was a 5-2 triumph against Pakistan in the league encounter. But Pakistan turned the tables to prevail by an identical score-line in the bronze medal playoff that left India bottom-placed in the four-nation tournament. The wildcard status for India comes a year after the team lost a chance to play in the Champions Trophy as hosts when the International Hockey Federation (FIH) moved the event out of New Delhi to Auckland citing governance issues in Indian hockey.
India's coach Michael Nobbs and captain Sardar Singh are hopeful of a decent show despite the absence of several senior players who lost their berths in the national squad in the aftermath of the bottom spot at the Olympics. Nobbs, a former Australian international, obviously wants to forget about the disastrous outing London turned out for his team. He wants his young wards to gain from the experience this Champions Trophy outing would provide them.
"We obviously had some problems with our game structure in London and that's something no one would like to remember, but we have to look ahead now," said Nobbs.
"The Champions Trophy provides a big opportunity for the youngsters, who will be up against the best players in the world. On our part, we need to provide them the opportunity to develop, and this is a fantastic chance to do so," added Nobbs.
Sardar, the team's star player, is back in the captain's role and should be an inspiration for the youngsters, who have come into the side after several seasoned players were left out. Penalty corner ace Sandeep Singh and ex-captain Shivendra Singh were dropped at the team selection after the preparatory camp. Others losing out on national selection were goalkeeper Bharat Chetri, who led the team in the Olympics, and the seasoned trio of Ignace Tirkey, Tushar Khandekar and Gurbaj Singh.
"We need to produce our best hockey to be competitive here," said Sardar.
"To start with, the team needs to gel well. There are several youngsters who will be striving to make a mark, and they've worked hard in the training sessions," said Sardar, whose team had an early morning training session at the venue this morning.
Sardar's deputy, VR Raghunath, will find himself in the role of the penalty corner shooter in the absence of Sandeep in the tournament where the preliminary league matches will be of little consequence in the final standings as all eight teams will move into the quarterfinals.
India are placed in Pool A along with reigning Olympic champions Germany, England and New Zealand, while hosts Australia, the Netherlands, Pakistan and Belgium feature in Group B.
World Cup holders Australia have won the past four editions of the Champions Trophy, Rankled by their inability to add the Olympic title to their collection, Australia are expected to come out charging to start their campaign against Belgium tomorrow. In other matches, the Netherlands will play against Pakistan and Germany will meet New Zealand in the opening round.
India's pool fixtures are against England, New Zealand (December 2) and Germany (December 4).
Although all four teams will get to play in the quarterfinals, a good show and some points in the three group games will boost the confidence of the Indian team. It can also earn easier quarterfinal opponents. India's lone medal in the elite Champions Trophy was a bronze they won in 1982 at Amsterdam.