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HIL 2016: In comeback bid, a stepping stone

For players on the fringes of the national team, the HIL provides last opportunity to return in contention for Olympics.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi |
Updated: January 15, 2016 6:56:51 am
HIL 2016, HIL, Hockey India League, Hockey League India, India Hockey, Hockey India, Sports News, Sports For players like Nikkin Thimmaiah (left), the HIL is the final chance to prove their mettle. (Source: PTI)

When the Indian players stepped on the podium for the first time in more than three decades to collect their Hockey World League bronze medals last month, Nikkin Thimmaiah sat in front of the TV experiencing mixed emotions.

While ecstatic for his teammates, he couldn’t conceal his disappointment of missing out on being a part of history despite being one of the key members of a team that has been on an upward curve. Nikkin was nursing a shoulder injury he picked up during the test series against New Zealand in October; a knock that forced him out for nearly three months.

Like Nikkin, another young forward Lalit Upadhyay too was declared unfit just before the World League owing to an injury. But the duo’s rising stature within the playing group means they are likely to return to the squad after the HIL.

For the others, however, it won’t be as simple. While Nikkin followed the fortunes of the Indian team from his home, Yuvraj Walmiki was performing superhero stunts for a reality TV show, which was shot in Argentina and Gurbaj Singh was plotting his next move in his quest to return to the team after being booted out because of disciplinary issues.

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The quartet has been a part of the Indian squad for most major tournaments in the last 24 months and with the team’s preparations for the Rio Olympics entering the home stretch, they know the Hockey India League (HIL), which begins on Monday, is the final chance for them to present their case to the selection committee and return to the core group of 26.

The task will get tougher especially for Gurbaj, who, rather controversially, could not be a part of the HIL following his spat with Hockey India.

Instead, the midfielder will have one last opportunity to show his worth during the South Asian Games, where he is expected to be a part of the second-string Indian team that will compete against the regional rivals.

For others who have been on the fringes of the national team, including the likes of Gurwinder Chandi, Mandeep Singh and SK Uthappa, the coming four weeks will decide whether they can claw their way back into the team.

Coach Roelant Oltmans said he will meet the selectors after the HIL to review the core group and after that, any changes to the squad are unlikely until the Games in August. “These players will have to play extra-ordinarily during the league as we have a set group of players, who have been around for a long time and understand what we are trying to achieve. Having said that, I believe this is their best, and last, chance to get a look in. I would be surprised if there are any additions to the group after the HIL,” Oltmans said.

‘Priorities unchanged’

The players realise the uphill task that awaits them. Walmiki became the first hockey player to shoot for a reality show last month but he asserts his priorities haven’t changed. The 27-year-old has been a part of the World Cup, scored a couple of crucial goals during the World League semifinals in Antwerp and has been a consistent performer for Delhi Waveriders in the HIL.

But he found himself out of favour after Oltmans decided to shrink the playing group. However, with the team in need of a goal-poacher, and the extra emphasis on strikers following the new rule where field goals will count as two, Walmiki hopes he can find a way back into the India team again.

“Many people say my priorities have changed after I signed up for the TV show. But they couldn’t be more off the mark. I missed out on the London Olympics and that still hurts. This tournament is do-or-die to get into the squad for Rio. But playing under (coach) Cedric, I feel quite confident of doing well,” he said.

What complicates that selection matters for the coach is that the last-minute replacements for Nikkin and Thimmaiah for the World League, Danish Mujtaba and Amir Khan, made the most of the opportunity with some eye-catching performances. Akashdeep Singh, a nominee for FIH’s young player of the year, too came up with some crucial goals while Ramandeep Singh too has found his scoring touch.

As they jostle for places, the players acknowledge the pressure to perform well during the HIL. Nikkin, a forward, said he has been working on his finishing and regaining strength following the surgery on his shoulder.

Oltmans, he said, has already warned him that “no one else will help you out apart from your own hard work.

“Every player is going to give more than 100 percent for the few spots up for grabs for the Olympic squad and that’s what even I will do — work more than everyone is expecting. I don’t want to watch the team play once again on the television,” Nikkin added.

Failed phone call leads to Sardar’s Punjab move 

New Delhi: A lot has been made of Delhi Waveriders’ decision to release India captain Sardar Singh. Some suggested Sardar’s relatively indifferent form while others speculated he wanted better contract, and expected to go for a big amount during the auctions.

However, going by Sardar’s version of the story, it was a case of miscommunication. “I was in Shilaroo for the camp when the team tried to contact me. But there was no network there so they couldn’t talk to me. They even sent me an email but I do not check my mails regularly hence missed it. It sounds strange but that’s the reason,” he said during the launch of the upcoming edition of Hockey India League on Thursday.

Sardar was eventually picked by Punjab Warriors for $58,000, much less than the $78,000 he commanded during the first auction. He also sympathized with Pakistani players for not being able to participate in the HIL.

However, he added that since they haven’t apologised for the behaviour during 2014 Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar, where their players made indecent gestures at the crowd and abused them, they shouldn’t be allowed. “Pakistani players are suffering a lot but what they did during the 2014 Champions Trophy was unacceptable. They still haven’t apologised for their behaviour so I feel they shouldn’t be allowed,” Sardar said.

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