After nearly three years of major competitions, Indian hockey team’s first-choice goalkeeper PR Sreejesh has been rested with chief coach Roelant Oltmans deciding to give second-choice Harjot Singh and youngster Akash Chikte a try-out instead during the Azlan Shah Cup next month in Malaysia.
Oltmans and his predecessors have often been at the receiving end of criticism for not rotating goalkeepers, a position Sreejesh has made his own by producing some consistent match-winning performances over the last few years. While Sreejesh’s rise has brought some stability to India’s defence, there is currently no reliable back-up, with Harjot nowhere close to Sreejesh’s calibre and also lacking in experience.
However, with the Olympics just five months away, Oltmans has chosen to test his reserve goalkeepers. While Harjot has warmed the bench for quite some time, Chikte has earned great reputation with some remarkable performances with the junior side. The duo is a part of the 18-member side led by Sardar Singh that will travel to Ipoh next month for the Azlan Shah Cup. Besides India, New Zealand, 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Australia, Pakistan, Japan, Canada and hosts Malaysia will be taking part in the annual tournament.
Besides the two goalkeepers, Oltmans has also decided to include young drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh in place of veteran VR Raghunath. Harmanpreet has been consistently scoring from short corners for the junior team and gave a good account of himself in the Hockey India League. Striker Mandeep Singh, who has been on the fringes for quite some time, will hope to use this opportunity to cement his place in the team as Oltmans continues his hunt for a poacher.
Junior team captain Harjeet Singh too has been included in the squad, which sees the return of Nikkin Thimmaiah, who missed recent tournaments owing to injury.
Oltmans said the tournament will be a good testing ground for the team ahead of the Olympics. “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,” Oltmans said.
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 Squad: Goalkeepers: Harjot Singh, Akash Chikte; Defenders: Rupinder Pal Singh, Jasjit Singh Kular, Kothajit Singh, Surender Singh, Harmanpreet Singh; Midfielders: Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh, Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, SK Uthappa, Harjeet Singh; Forwards: Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, SV Sunil, Ramandeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah.