This piece was published in Sportskeeda
Having emerged out of the shadows of senior players like Sandeep Singh and Ignace Tirkey with stellar performances in the 34th Champions Trophy and the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy, Indian hockey team vice-captain Vokkaliga Raghunath is now bracing up to do the same for Uttar Pradesh Wizards in the inaugural Hockey India League.
The much-hyped league would be a great opportunity for the strapping 25-year-old to maintain his recent consistent run and play a big role in helping the Sahara India Pariwar-owned Lucknow franchise to corner glory. “It will be great fun playing with and against some of the world’s best players. The competitive element will always be there in every match, but it is not often that you get a chance to play with the likes of Teun De Nooijer, who is a big name in world hockey, Jeroen Hertzberger, Eddie Ockenden and Sander Baart. I’m really keyed up to fare well in the HIL and help my team go the distance,” Raghunath said in an exclusive interview.
All the five teams are going through their paces at their training camps, which have grabbed notice for its short duration. Raghunath doesn’t feel that a training camp for a week or so should be inadequate preparation for the teams. “Look, most of the players are intelligent and smart enough to quickly adjust within the given time-frame. I really don’t think that there should be any concerns about the short duration of the camps. It should work out fine with all teams,” he pointed out.
The confabulation veered towards the league’s strong contenders and Raghunath believed that the tournament is split wide open. “It’s hard to pick a favourite. In my opinion, no team is a favourite, any team can be beaten on any given day. It all boils down to a team playing good hockey on a particular day.”
The Indian drag-flicker, who has played 132 internationals and scored 94 goals, is fully convinced that the HIL would do a world of good to Indian hockey. “Batraji (Narinder) has worked really hard to get this league going in India, hats off to him. Hockey players are well taken care of (paid well for the league) and I’m confident that more youngsters would take to hockey.”
2012 International Super Series - Day 2 Uttar Pradesh Wizards will be coached by legendary coach Roelant Oltmans, who guided the Dutch national team to 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold and 1998 World Cup glory in Utrecht. And like many others, Raghunath is excited about getting tips from him. “Oltmans is a great coach. I will be looking to benefit from his inputs. It will be help me to emerge as a better defender in future,” the Coorg lad opined.
Indeed, Raghunath’s defending skills have drawn copious praise from various quarters in the last two international tournaments in Melbourne and Doha. “A year back, I was not a good defender, I was only a drag-flicker who could score goals from penalty corners. I have worked on my defending skills over the last few months and I think it is beginning to show in my performance. I’m a better defender now and feel confident about tackling marauding forwards as well defending short corners,” the Indian Oil Corporation officer said with a tinge of confidence.
Indian hockey team is used to facing strong, well built players from Europe and Australia. Now India have the two burly Rs in their defence – Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, and can afford to give a dose of their own medicine (tough body play) to the opponents. “Hockey has changed a lot over the years. It has become more physical with so much of body play involved. You have to be at your best physically at all times and be ready to give everything for your team for 70 minutes. It’s good that India have well built players in the side. Trainer Jason Conrath is working hard with the boys,” he quipped.
Has the mantle of vice-captaincy brought extra responsibility on his broad shoulders? “I’m always looking to improve as a player. Of course, vice-captaincy is a responsibility I’m looking to handle to the best of my ability. As a player, I don’t just think of myself only as a defender, I’m ready to play in any position, even upfront if needed,” he puts forth his views.
The elevation of Raghunath as vice-captain coincided with the naming of Sardar Singh as the national team captain after Bharat Chetri led the London Olympics side. Raghunath is more than happy to be his deputy. “It’s a joy to have someone like Sardar Singh in the side. He leads from the front, he gels well with his team-mates, gives equal respect to every team member and always motivates them. He is one of the world’s best centre-halfs and is very down-to-earth as well. As a vice captain, I’m ready to give him whatever support he needs,” he lavished praise on his captain.
How does he assess chief coach Michael Nobbs? “The one thing I like about his is that he always remains calm. Players don’t feel pressurized by his presence. He explains to every player in a nice way. We owe a lot to him,” he observed.
There is a school of thought that Raghunath and Rupinder have made the comeback route of Sandeep Singh even harder. Raghunath backs the seasoned fullback to be in the national team sooner than later. “Sandeep Singh is an asset to any side. If he is in the team, we will have three drag-flickers in the side for 70 minutes, which will be a great thing for India. I’m missing his absence and have no doubts that he will be back in the side soon. Sandeep will be a bonus for us,” added the burly defender.
In fact, there is cut-throat competition in the Indian drag-flicker department with someone like Sandeep out of the side. Even talented 18-year-old Gurjinder Singh of WSH fame is also waiting in the wings and was even named as a standby for the national team probables for the first camp at Patiala after the London Olympics campaign. “Healthy competition is good for the side. It pushes every player to raise the performance bar and benefits the team immensely,” he fired a parting shot.