New Delhi: Talismanic midfielder Sardar Singh will lead an experimental 18-member India hockey team, which will be as many as seven players including senior goalkeeper and vice-captain PR Sreejesh, in the 25th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup to be held in Ipoh, Malaysia next month.
Indian hockey team. Pic/AFP
The move to leave out seven players from the Hockey World League Final squad was taken keeping in mind the Olympics as Hockey India selectors wanted to give phase-wise rest to all the senior players, who are expected to form the core of the Rio-bound team.
Apart from Sreejesh, the most notable omission from the Azlan Shah-bound squad are striker Akashdeep Singh, midfielder Dharamvir Singh, drag-flicker VR Raghunath and ace defender Birendra Lakra. Devinder Walmiki and Lalit Upadahyay were the other two players who were not picked.
Sreejesh's place in the team was taken by young Akash Anil Chikte while SK Uthappa and strikers Mandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah also made their comebacks.
Besides, Surender Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Harjeet Singh were the other new entrants to the side. Live-wire forward SV Sunil has been appointed Sardar's deputy for the Azlan Shah Cup to be held from April 6 to 16.
When contacted Hockey India selection committee chairman BP Govinda clarified that the changes were made to manage fatigue and give players rest ahead of Rio Olympics.
"All these players have been playing continuously for the past one year. Sreejesh is our main goalkeeper and he and others have been playing constant hockey, including the tiring Hockey India League. So we need to give them rest to avoid burnout," Govinda told PTI.
"Olympics is our main aim and we need a 100 per cent fit and fresh team for the Games. In the run up to the Olympics we will continue to give players rest and manage them. At same time we didn't want to send a second string side, all these players are part of the core probables. In the next tournament Sardar and few other players will be given rest," he said.
Besides India, New Zealand, 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Australia, Pakistan, Japan, Canada and hosts Malaysia will be taking part in the annual tournament.
In Sreejesh's absence, Harjot Singh will be the senior goalkeeper and the tournament will give him much-needed exposure.
"By resting a few regular players, it also gives us a chance to test reserve strength. We also wanted to give exposure to the other members of the core probables," Govinda said.
With the Rio Olympics just a few months away, the Azlan Shah Cup will serve as a barometer to measure the team's preparation for the most important sporting event of the year.
"India has a good record in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and we would like to keep it that way. Being an Olympic year, this tournament assumes special importance as it will give us an idea where we stand," said Sardar.
"Playing against good teams like Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan and not to forget hosts Malaysia will give the team critical competition exposure. It will be a good opportunity trying out new things and new combinations in the tournament to see if they work," he added.
In preparation for the tournament, the Indian men's team is currently undergoing a training camp that started on March 7 at the SAI Centre in Bangalore.
"The boys have been working hard as a unified unit and are geared up for the tournament ahead. Azlan Shah will be a good testing ground for us right before the Rio Olympics and will be very crucial for the team. We are focused on improving the game technically and implement the right strategies," said chief coach Roelant Oltmans.
One of the areas of concern has been the tendency to concede late goals.
"In the past we have conceded late goals that have taken away the games from us. We want to eliminate that particular weakness. We have been working on it for some time now, which we will be able to put to test in the tournament," he added.
India have enjoyed a good run in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. They won the prestigious tournament five times in 1985, 91, 95, 2009 and 2010, while they earned bronze on six occasions and finished runners-up once in 2008.
The round-robin format will help the team get decent amount of competition exposure under its belt. It will also give them an opportunity to gauge the fitness level, since the conditions in Ipoh around this time of the year will be extremely hot and humid. The Indian team has shown considerable improvement in the fitness levels in the past couple of year.
Team: Goalkeeper: Harjot Singh, Akash Anil Chikte Defenders: Rupinder Pal Singh, Jasjit Singh Kular, Kothajit Singh, Surender Singh, Harmanpreet Singh Midfielders: Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh, Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, S K Uthappa, Harjeet Singh Forwards: Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, SV Sunil, Ramandeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah.