Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Case of so near yet so far for Jaypee Warriors



What more Jaypee Punjab Warriors could have done to break their jinx of winning the Hero Hockey India League? It was a case of so near and yet so far for the Barry Dancer-coached Punjab outfit as they were denied a shot at glory by Ranchi Rays in an exhilarating penalty shootout at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi.

Missed chances cost the Punjab Warriors

Unlike the first two editions, the Warriors looked the team to beat in the tournament despite their twin defeats at the hands of Ranchi Rays in the league phase. The Warriors’ two wins over reigning champions Delhi Waveriders in the league phase was a fair indicator of the kind of form they were in. And the script seemed to go their way when the Warriors took the lead through Kieren Govers before the Rays hit back. The Punjab side again regained the lead only to surrender it almost immediately. Clearly, the Warriors had the match in their grasp, and when a team twice takes a lead in a final match only to surrender, probably they did not deserve to win the trophy.
Of course, the Warriors suffered a psychological blow when their inspirational skipper Jamie Dwyer had to give the final game a miss owing to an injury, but that cannot be used as an alibi for the defeat. The Warriors have so much flair in their side. The likes of Jaap Stockmann, SV Sunil, Dharamvir Singh, Rob Hammond, Chris Ciriello, Kieren Govers and Augustin Mazzilli can instill fear factor in the minds of the opposition. One thought that the moment the Warriors allowed Barry Middleton to equalize for the Rays, the match went out of their grasp. In fact, the Rays appeared more pumped up in the shootout even as their players held their nerves to come through the shootout with aplomb.
As they say in sport, there is always a next time and Jaypee Punjab Warriors would hopefully takes the positives from their runners-up finish and emerge even stronger in the 2016 edition.

2015 Hero Hockey India League Stats file


First Goal of 2015 HIL: Lucas Villa (Kalinga Lancers vs Ranchi Rays)

Total Number of Goals Scored
: 137

Biggest Winning Margin
: Jaypee Punjab Warriors beat Delhi Waveriders 7-0

Total Number of Matches Played
: 34

First Yellow Card of 2015 HIL
: Mandeep Singh (Ranchi Rays vs Kalinga Lancers)

Player Scoring the 100th Goal
: Gurjinder Singh (Kalinga Lancers)

First Drawn Game of 2015 HIL
: 6th game between Ranchi Rays & Delhi Waveriders (2-2)

First Green Card of 2015 HIL
: Devinder Walmiki (Kalinga Lancers vs Ranchi Rays)

First Penalty Corner Goal
: Ashley Jackson (Ranchi Rays) vs Kalinga Lancers)

First Penalty Stroke Goal
: Jeroen Hertzberger (UP Wizards vs Delhi Waveriders)

First Hat-trick of 2015 HIL
: Ashley Jackson (Ranchi Rays vs Kalinga Lancers)

Top Goal-Scorer
: 12 Ashley Jackson (Ranchi Rays)

First Foreign Player to score a goal this season
: Ashley Jackson

First Franchise To Win HIL Twice
: Ranchi franchise (owners of course changed in the 2015 edition)

Team Scoring Most Goals
: 30 Jaypee Punjab Warriors

Team Leaking Most Goals
: 27 Dabang Mumbai

Team Engaged In Most Draws
: 4 Delhi Waveriders

Indian wrestlers should win 3-4 medals in Rio, says legendary Satpal

Legendary wrestler Satpal Singh – more famously known as Mahabali Satpal – has extra reasons to be happy at the age of 59. The celebrated former Asiad gold medallist and illustrious coach was recently bestowed with Padma Bhushan for his unstinted contribution towards Indian wrestling. Satpal had bagged a bronze in the 1974 Asiad, silver in 1978 Bangkok Asiad and a coveted gold in 1982 Delhi Asiad.


Satpal also won three consecutive silver medals in the 1974 Commonwealth Games (Christchurch), 1978 Commonwealth Games (Edmonton) and 1982 Commonwealth Games (Brisbane).
Satpal, who is currently serving as Assistant Director of Education, Delhi, also featured in the 1972 Munich Olympics, where he won four bouts before bowing out. He was selected for the 1976 Montreal Olympics but did not play as the Indian team was not send for that edition. Satpal also took part in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The former Indian stalwart coached Sushil Kumar for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Sushil Kumar is the son-in-law of Satpal, having married the latter’s daughter Savi Solanki. Satpal, the current School Games Federation of India (SGFI) President, spoke about Indian wrestling and much more in an exclusive interview.

Excerpts:

Q You had earlier won the Arjuna Award, Padma Shri, Dronacharya Award and recently you were bestowed with Padma Bhushan. How does it feel?


I’m really elated to be conferred with Padma Bhushan and want to thank the government of India for the honour. It is difficult to express my feelings in words as I just feel that the award is recognition of what I have done for Indian wrestling both as a player and coach.

Q How do you assess the state of Indian wrestling?


I think Indian wrestling is in good health. I’m training a lot of youngsters in the age-group of 11-12, who are training hard and should be ready for the 2020 Olympics. These young boys have a steely determination to win a medal at the Olympics and they tell me during training sessions that medal in Olympics is what all they aspire for.

Q Do you think wrestling icon Sushil Kumar has breathed life into the sport in the country?


Oh yes! Sushil has shown that with hard work and dedication one can do wonders. Winning back-to-back medals in Olympics is not easy and he has attained that. Yogeshwar Dutt’s medal in London Olympics also gave boost to Indian wrestling.

Q There is no doubt that Indian wrestling is on a sound footing. Don’t you think wrestling talents are only emerging from states like Delhi, Haryana, UP and Maharashtra barring a few others?


Look, wrestlers from these states are more formidable than most other states. It will be wrong to say that wrestling has not spread across the country. At the Senior Nationals we have 28-30 wrestlers taking part in each weight category, which just shows there is no shortage of participation of wrestlers from other states, just that they have to upgrade their performance with better training and facilities.

Q Is there enough incentive for a youngster to take up wrestler?


Why not? Wrestlers performing in major international meets are offered good government jobs and attractive endorsement deals. You must have seen Sushil Kumar as an example. He won the World Championship besides two Olympic medals and corporate houses are lining up to sign him for advertisements.

Q There was a time when Indian wrestlers did all kinds of homework to prepare for international meets – do you think world’s top wrestling nations like Russia, US, Mongolia, Iran, Japan and Korea are more wary of Indian grapplers now?


I agree that there was a time when our grapplers used to get overawed by the opposition but not anymore. Indian wrestlers are as good as wrestlers of these countries. Every wrestling nation is watching out for India ever since we starting winning Olympic medals in 2008.

Q The 2016 Rio Olympics is not far away. How many medals India can expect at this event?


I can confidently say that we will bag three or four medals in wrestling. I will not be surprised that most of it is gold.

Q You are School Games Federation of India (SGFI) President. How much is wrestling promoted at the school level?


The school-level wrestling in India has decent standards. Many current Indian wrestlers have come through the school wrestling platform and it is a nice window of an opportunity for grapplers to have a proper learning curve. I also promoted women wrestling at the school level and so overall wrestling is spreading fast at the school level.

Q You have featured in two Olympics (1972 and 1980), three Asian Games (1974, 1978, 1982) and three Commonwealth Games (1974, 1978, 1982). Which is the one bout you cherish the most?


Every winning bout is special for me, but I would say that my gold medal bout in the 1982 Delhi Asian Games was the best. I was up against Mongolia’s Dashdorjiin Tserentogtokh, who was the 1981 world champion. It was a tough bout which I won in front of my home crowd.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

No player is unbeatable: Sourabh Varma

Injuries can be a dampener for a player, but there are times when a player derives an extra dose of inspiration and steps up his game by a few notches. Indian shuttler Sourabh Varma apparently did the same winning the men’s singles gold medal for his home state Madhya Pradesh at the 35th National Games – the only gold for his state – getting the better of Haryana’s Akshit Mahajan in the final showdown.

The 22-year-old Madhya Pradesh lad cornered glory at the 35th National Games in Kerala despite carrying an elbow injury, which got even more severe after his semifinal match. Sourabh, who is ranked 66 in the world, spoke about his plans for 2015 and much more in an exclusive interview.

Q You won the gold at the recent National Games for Madhya Pradesh - the only yellow metal for your state despite carrying an injury. Tell us your experiences?


It was not easy to play with an injured elbow. I was experiencing little pain from the start of the tournament, which aggravated after my semifinal match. But I did not want to miss out on an opportunity of fetching a gold medal in National Games, so I just focused on giving my best despite the injury.

Q How would you sum up your singles performance in 2014?


Well, 2014 had been a good year. I started the year with bagging two international titles – Austria and Iran – followed by a runners-up finish at the Malaysia GPG. I was also part of the national team for the Thomas Cup and Asian Games, which gave me immense satisfaction.

Q Which were your most cherished wins last year?


Winning tournaments in Iran and Austria and my runners-up finish at the Malaysia GPG.

Q You had once reached a world ranking of 30 but now you are outside the top-50. What would you attribute to the fall in ranking?


I don't think much about ranking but obviously I fell short in giving my best there.

Q What are the grey areas you think you want to work on?


I think I need to be strong in every area of the game because at the world level every player has a different style of game.

Q The year 2011 was a turning point in your career - you won the senior nationals as well as your first international singles crown?


Yes, it was great year indeed. My performance that year really boosted my confidence.

Q Who according to you is the most difficult shuttler to play against?


In reality, nobody is difficult to play. With the right amount of concentration and drive any player can be defeated.

Q How do you look at the state of Indian badminton?


It has improved immensely over the past couple of years. People are becoming more familiar to the game and the BAI has also taken great initiatives to popularize the game. I’m happy with the progress Indian Badminton is making.

Q You trained under the watchful eyes of Pullela Gopichand at his Hyderabad-based academy. How has been the experience of training under him?


The experience has been good. After joining the academy I improved my game a lot; whatever I have achieved at the senior level till now, its because of Gopi sir's guidance.

Q What goals you have for the year 2015?


I want to break in the top-20 by the end of the year.

Q How do you unwind when you are free from training and playing commitments?


I like listening to music.

Tom Boon: A big disappointment for Dabang Mumbai


Tom Boon was touted to be the ‘most happening player’ of the 2015 Hero Hockey India League – why not, after all he is the league’s most costliest player having being bought for $103,00 by Dabang Mumbai. The 25-year-old Belgium goal-poacher was expected to set the Hero Hockey India League on fire with his prodigious goal-scoring skills, but he has been a big disappointment for Dabang Mumbai in the 2015 edition.

One is not trying to be too critical of Boon’s performance as this was his first stint in the HIL after having given the first two editions a miss. Ask any hockey lover in India and the common refrain will be that he has cut a disappointing figure in the 2015 HIL.

One has to understand that foreign players may at times find it challenging to forge a ‘productive combination’ with the Indian players, who form a large chunk of every franchise. This can happen because training camps of teams are held for a short duration. Of course, as a professional every player must be prepared to cope with challenges and Boon having played for various club sides, will know that.

Let’s not hesitate in saying that Dabang Mumbai – owned by DoIT Sports Management – appears more formidable than erstwhile Dabur Group-owned Mumbai Magicians and they have a pretty decent coaching staff in place with German junior team's head coach Valentin Altenburg alongside former India captain and Arjuna awardee Viren Rasquinha as its strategic advisor and mentor, another former India skipper Anil Aldrin as assistant coach and former striker Edgar Mascrenhas as its goalkeeper coach.

Boon, for the record, scored once in their 1-2 defeat at the hands of Ranchi Rays, but by and large hasn’t been able to live up to the expectations of his team-mates and supporters. The biggest hindrance for Dabang Mumbai has been Boon’s inability to convert penalty corners – a trait he has become renown across the globe.

We all know how Boon played a big role in Belgium finishing a creditable fifth at the 2012 London Olympics and has been one among a string of players who have behind Belgium’s climb up the performance and ranking ladders of world hockey.
One would have expected Boon to give penalty corner-taking opportunities to his junior short corner team-mate Harmanpreet Singh simply because he did not appear to be at his best. As a senior pro, Boon kept taking short corners and missing them as well, while Harmanpreet did score a few times from the set-pieces whenever he got an opportunity.

As they say class is permanent and form is temporary and Boon for now seems to be not at his best. But he did show glimpses of his prowess during the league game against Uttar Pradesh Wizards in Lucknow, where he really came into his own. Although goals eluded him, Boon was firing on all cyclinders, a match Dabang Mumbai lost due to a late strike by the Wizards.

Call it a coincidence or anything – Tom Boon is no exception – every year the costliest player in the HIL hasn’t quite been able to live up to their price tag. Dutch veteran Teun de Nooijer was a big flop in the 2013 edition, while India’s Ramandeep Singh was a let-down in the 2014 edition (of course Ramandeep has performed well in the 2015 edition).

Looking to raise performance bar: Sandeep


Sandeep Singh turned out for now-defunct Dabur Mumbai Magicians in the inaugural HIL season and switched loyalties to home franchise Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the 2014 edition, and both occasions he emerged as the top goal-scorer.

The Haryana Police DSP is on the cusp of becoming the top goal-scorer for the third consecutive year with 8 goals so far, playing a key role in the Jaypee Punjab Warriors’ impressive run in the 2015 HIL.

Sandeep talks about his HIL performance in an exclusive interview.

Q You have been quite consistent with your penalty corners in the Hero Hockey India League – you are on the verge of becoming the top goal-scorer in the HIL for the third consecutive time. Your thoughts.


I’m looking to deliver for my team whether it is scoring goals from short corners or blunting the opposition attacks in defence. I’m looking to raise the performance bar and there is always so much to learn from each game.

Q Do you think your performance in the HIL may open the window of national selection for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup?


Well, I’m focused on the Hero Hockey India and would like to do my best so that my team – Jaypee Punjab Warriors – wins the HIL after we came close to doing it last season. HIL is my prime focus and I’m not thinking of anything else at the moment.

Q There is a lot of completion in the Indian team for drag-flickers – Rupinder and Raghunath are shaping up well and then we have the likes of Gurjinder and Harmanpreet waiting in the wings.


Competition will always be there and is good for the team. I’m just focused on my game and as far as national selection is concerned, I’m not thinking about it as my focus is on the HIL.

Q Most of the foreign coaches like Michael Nobbs and Terry Walsh have felt that your defending skills are hindering your chances of playing in the national team.


Look, no player is complete and it is a learning curve and I’m no different. I have gained experience over the years, but learning will keep happening in every game. I like to improve all the time and never let complacency creep into my system.

Q You have played in various foreign hockey leagues. How would you rate the Hero Hockey India League?


I think Hero Hockey India League is the world’s best hockey league. The world hockey’s who who are taking part in HIL and the league has raised the profile of Indian hockey.

Q Do you think the Indian youngsters are benefiting from the HIL?


HIL has provided a wonderful platform for Indian youngster to showcase their skills, gain experience of playing top players and can be serve as a good supply line for the national team. I’m confident that the bench strength of the national team will grow in coming years thanks to HIL.

Q  Can we hope to see Sandeep Singh playing in the 2016 Rio Olympics?


Like I have said, I am only focusing on HIL, Rio Olympics is still some way away. I don’t want to talk on selection matters.

Q How are things shaping up on the movie that will be made on your playing career.


Well, the work on the movie will happen once the HIL is over. I will talk about that once the HIL ends.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ranchi Rays revolves around ‘pivot’ Ashley Jackson

There is something about the Ranchi franchise in the Hero Hockey India League that endears you. Whether it was the erstwhile Ranchi Rhinos owned by Patel-PS Group and Uniexcel Group or the current Ranchi Rays owned by Indian World Cup cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Sahara Adventure Sports Limited, this only franchise from the eastern city of the country has invariably made fans sit up and take notice of them.

The crowd support for the Ranchi franchise has gone a step ahead of others. And there is man by the name of Ashley Jackson, who has barely put a foot wrong in the 2015 Hero Hockey India League.

We all know that Ashley Jackson is a class act and it doesn’t need overemphasizing that. The English playmaker is one of those rare talents, who can man the midfield admirably, double up as a forward and is also an expert drag-flicker – a trait normally associated with fullbacks. The amount of value Ashley Jackson lends to any side be it at the club or international level is immense.

Ranchi Rays were so well served by German Moritz Fuertse in the first two editions of the HIL so much so that all the good work of Ashley Jackson was getting overshadowed. The 2015 edition saw Moritz Fuertse give the HIL a miss due to pressing commitments and Ashley Jackson was handed the captain armband.

The England medio seems to have relished the opportunity of leading from the front in the 2015 HIL edition, literally making his presence felt in each of the nine games Ranchi Rays have featured in so far.

Jackson has impressed with solid passing play besides rushing back to rescue the defence when in distress and exuding fair amount of consistency in scoring from short corners. His hat-trick in Rays’ 4-0 over Kalinga Lancers in Ranchi was just superb and his consistent striking prowess means he is the tournament’s top goal-scorer alongside Sandeep Singh – both scoring eight goals each.

Jackson’s biggest challenge is to shepherd his side in the final of the 2015 edition and help them take a shot at glory for the second time. We all know Ranchi Rays have enough ammunition to do it, and in Ashley Jackson, they have someone who can deliver the killer punch in crunch situations.

Nothing will be a bigger joy for Jackson but to see his side embrace glory like Moritz Fuertse attained as skipper in the 2013 edition. The sight of Ashley Jackson in full cry is what the team management of Ranchi Rays would hope for as the league approaches the knockout phase.

Analysis: National Games desperately needs image makeover!

It is supposed to be the biggest sporting extravaganza on the Indian domestic circuit, however, the Nationa Games leaves a ‘much to be desired’, when spoken about. Indeed, the 35th National Games, which is being held across seven venues in Kerala – Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alapuzha, Ernakulam, Kozhikode, Trissur, Kannur – hasn’t quite been able to match the newspaper coverage we are used to for sports like cricket and tennis.

The event invariably had a low-profile until the mid-eighties, when the National Games started to grab the attention across the country. The event organized by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) with support from the state Olympic association, Sports Ministry and SAI, desperately needs an image makeover and is struggling to attain that

Barring a few newspapers, most don’t even provide elaborate coverage of the multi-sport extravaganza, and given the sparse media coverage, how can one expect our upcoming youngsters? One has to ask whether the National Games is really a priority for the betterment of Indian sports or is it just a case of going through the motions as if it is being held just for the heck of it.

Several big athletes have given the National Games a miss. Look at some of the Indian shuttlers, who conveniently chose not to attend this event and these players haven’t been penalized by the Badminton Association of India (BAI). The common excuse for these players is that they need adequate rest so that they are fresh for their international commitments or at least the authorities concerned must send a message – loud and clear.


Barring some big names in swimming, shooting and gymnastics, the 35th National Games hasn’t quite seen the who’s who of Indian sports. Of course, the timing of the 35th National Games has to be questioned. With the event held close to the start of the World Cup, it will always be a struggle to see the event get any significant coverage. Look at our hockey players, who are busy playing in the Hero Hockey India League just when they should be representing their respective states in the National Games. It does appear that proper coordination among sports bodies is grossly missing and such a scenario does not really serve anyone’s interest.


It is time the powers-that-be take a hard look of how all big names of Indian sports are compelled to be part of the National Games. That’s the only game this event can raise its profile and attract sponsors so that it becomes a commercial success besides the primary purpose of serving as a handy platform for sportspersons to showcase their skills in their pursuit of excellence.







Dabang Mumbai warmly embraces grassroot hockey!


It’s not always the on-field performance that matters. True, every team play to win and only one team can win, but equally important is how a team contributes towards the development of the sport, besides carrying out the primary task of winning.
DoIT Sports Management-owned Dabang Mumbai may have missed out on a berth in the semifinals of the Hero Hockey India League, but the manner in which the newest franchise unveiled various initiatives to promote hockey is indeed laudable.

The owner of the Mumbai side is not just keen on getting their team win matches, but also has a strong feel for the sport. Dabang Mumbai forged a partnership with top-notch Dutch club HC Bloemendaal – one of the oldest Dutch clubs – which boasts of the likes of Floria Jan Bovelander and Teun de Nooijer. As part of the partnership, both Bovelander and de Nooijer conducted a coaching clinic in India recently with 30 coaches associated with various school and colleges in Mumbai. Dabang Mumbai is determined to develop grassroot hockey not just in Mumbai, but also in the western states of Goa and Gujarat.

The focus of the coaching workshop by HC Bloemendaal is to put a system in place, which can help tap new talents and churn out a solid supply line to the national team. Under the able guidance of DoIT Sports Management Director Radha Kapoor, the Mumbai outfit is hoping to set new standards in nurturing talents from the Western region.

Dabang Mumbai also conducted a 'gully hockey' programme at Mumbai’s HR College, where college students, youngsters interacted and engaged in a session with international stars from Dabang Mumbai. These college youngsters had an enriching experience, playing and interacting with the likes of Glenn Turner, Tom Boon, Floris Evers among others. Over 200 students participated in this programme where Dabang Mumbai’s international stars explained them the nuances of the game and tactics, and also regaled many who were watching the programme.

DoIT Sports Management strongly believes that the future of sports development in India hinges on a “RUrban” model, where the sport should not be restricted to available surfaces and conditions as utilizing various avenues and surfaces can work towards grooming future talent.

Performance-wise the Mumbai franchise may not have left their ardent supporters jubilant, but make no mistake, they have shown the gumption and tenacity in all the games they played – who can forget how they fought tooth and nail to hold last runners-up and red-hot favourites Jaypee Punjab Warriors 3-3 in their league opener.

Clearly, Dabang Mumbai may not enthrall us in the knockout phase of the HIL, but it has done much more with their initiatives, which can go a long way in promoting hockey in Mumbai and other parts of Western India.

HIL disciplinary committee deserves praise for cracking the whip on unruly player behavior


Matches in the Hero Hockey India League have really got exciting with every outing and it has left nobody in doubt that the league has evolved over a period of three years. But amidst all the hype and excitement, players have shown the propensity to cross the ‘line’ in the spur of the moment.
Such unbecoming incidents can often paint a bad picture about the league, which has attained popularity since its inception in 2013.

The participation of the who’s who of world hockey – Jamie Dwyer, Moritz Fuertse, Barry Middleton, Ashley Jackson, Jaap Stockmann, Jeroen Hertzeberger, Mark Knowles, Gonzalo Peillat and Tom Boon has lifted the Hero Hockey India League immensely, but sometimes on-field incidents can cast an ugly shadow on the event.

One has to laud the HIL’s disciplinary committee, who has been quick to react and penalize players. We first saw Jaypee Punjab Warriors’ seasoned Australian defender Mark Knowles abuse an Uttar Pradesh Wizards player during their home game at Mohali and was served a one-match suspension.
The HIL disciplinary committee needed to get the message loud and clear that players won’t get away by getting into verbal/physical duels.

Indian team and Delhi Waveriders captain Sardar Singh became the second player to incur the wrath of HIL’s disciplinary committee. The ace medio was handed a one-match suspension for "inappropriate physical contact” with a Jaypee Punjab Warriors player during their home match in New Delhi and like Mark Knowles had to sit out for one game.

But, the biggest offence came from Indian and Kalinga Lancers’ drag-flicker Gurjinder Singh. The talented drag-flicker assaulted a Jaypee Punjab Warriors player, during their home game in Bhubaneshwar. Gurjinder, who scored the lone goal for the Lancers in that game, was banned for two games.

Clearly, the Hero Hockey India League’s disciplinary committee has set a benchmark, which will keep all players on their toes. Any slightest thought of crossing the ‘line’ and getting away will be the last thing on the players’ minds. If the HIL’s disciplinary committee’s way of reacting to such incidents is anything to go by, hockey is in safe hands.

One hopes the disciplinary committee continues to stamp their authority on such incidents in the upcoming games and ensures the league is free from such unruly player behavior.

Analysis: Has Punjab Warriors sealed one semis berth already?



The 2015 Hero Hockey India League is well into its second week and matches have been closely fought than ever before. But there is one team – Jaypee Punjab Warriors – who have looked pretty impressive despite their winning run being snapped by Uttar Pradesh Wizards courtesy a 1-2 loss on Wednesday.

The Warriors coached by 62-year-old Australian Barry Dancer, a man who has served the Kookaburras with distinction having being part of the silver-winning national team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He has showed that they pack too much ammunition for the other teams, although one cannot deny the fact that other five teams have shown the inclination, not to throw in the towel at any stage of the game.

It won’t be unfair to suggest that Jaypee Punjab Warriors have already sealed one of the four semifinal slots with 23 points from six games. With due respect to all teams, it is hard to see the Punjab outfit not being in the knockout phase, thus leaving the likes of Delhi Waveriders, Uttar Pradesh Wizards, Kalinga Lancers and Dabang Mumbai to slug it out for the other three semi-final berths.

The Warriors may have appeared near invincible in most games, but it’s not that they were not stretched. Their opening game against Dabang Mumbai was perhaps the match of the tournament, where the Punjab side twice came from behind to settle for a 3-3 draw. The fighting side of the Warriors came to the fore as they trailed 0-1 to Delhi Waveriders till the end of the third quarter, but they hitting back thrice in the final quarter to orchestrate an unbelievable win. The win was a kind of ‘revenge exacting thing’ for them as they were denied glory in the 2014 edition final by the same opponents.

The Warriors have a well balanced side and the fact that skipper Jamie Dwyer is leading from the front has been a big factor in their team’s upswing in fortunes. The celebrated scored an eye-catching equalizer against Dabang Mumbai in their opening game and has scored four goals so far.
Ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh – the top goal scorer of the 2013 and 2014 editions – has been hungry during short corners firing five goals so far. Chris Cirello is another deadly PC exponent for the Warriors.
The Indian forwards – SV Sunil, Dharamvir Singh and Affan Yousuf – have looked handy upfront and overall the Warriors’ forwardline has so much flair to offer. Four wins, one draw and one loss in six games does sum up their consistency and also raise their billing as one of the strong title contenders.

Indian badminton: Exuding promise for the future


The might of China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, China and Denmark held sway over world badminton for many years. India was seemingly doing all the ‘catching up’ it could. We saw the likes of Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand proving that they were second to none over the past few decades, not to speak of the stellar run of Saina Nehwal. It was as if only individual brilliance catapulted India into limelight in international tournaments.

There was a time in Indian badminton when the men’s section had a top-ranked shuttler, the women’s didn’t, and when the women’s section saw the indomitable Saina Nehwal rise through the ranks, the men shuttlers were sedately going the process of taking part in tournaments without making any significant statement.

A force together

Over the last few years, Indian badminton has evolved rapidly to emerge as a potent force both in men’s and women’s singles categories. Time and again we have see the Indian shuttlers announce themselves on the world stage.
K Srikanth capped off a memorable 2014 outsmarting Parpupalli Kashyap to become the country’ s top ranked singles players – scaling astounding heights toppling five time world champion Lin Dan to win the China Open, besides a string of power-packed performances to break into the top-5 – the only third Indian shuttler to do so after Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand.

Massive rise over the past year

Even as K Srikanth was calling the shots on the international stage, Indian had several other shuttlers who were making life difficult for their opponents. For most part of last twelve months, India had as many six to seven shuttlers in the top-50. The likes of Parupalli Kashyap, HS Pranoy, Anand Pawar, Ajay Jayaram, RMV Gurusaidutt and Sourabh Varma came up with decent showings – summing up how the Indian badminton contingent was collectively standing firm against all the challenges thrown at them.
Saina Nehwal did endure a dip in form over a period of time, but picked up the pieces to win the Australian Open Super Series before going on to clinch the Chinese Open Super Series Premier. She kicked off her 2015 campaign winning the Indian Open Grand Prix. She was not the only women ploughing a lone furrow – PV Sindhu kept herself in the news retaining the Macau Open.
A large chunk of Indian shuttlers’ success must go to national coach and former stalwart Pullela Gopichand, who has been diligently training his wards at the Hyderabad-based Gopichand Badminton Academy.

There is little doubt that Indian badminton is on a high. With the All England Championship and the World Championship not far away, a podium finish at these events will be a further reiteration of the good health of Indian badminton.

All top teams keen to play India: Oltmans


Roelant Oltmans did a fabulous job as stand-in coach of the Indian team at the Champions Trophy as the national team reached the semifinals of the premier event for the second consecutive time. Oltmans, now serving as Uttar Pradesh Wizards coach talks on a range of issues in an exclusive interview.

Excerpts:
 

Q. How do you assess the 2015 Hero Hockey India League?

I think teams in this edition have got more competitive and we are consistently witnessing down-to-the-wire contests. We had seen quite a few drawn games so early in the tournament, which just goes to show that all teams are strong and equally determined to do well.


Q. How much has HIL benefited the Indian youngsters?


There is no doubt that the league has worked wonders for the Indian youngsters. These young lads need the right exposure to grow their game and HIL is the platform where they could not just improve their game, but also make a mark and leave an impression on the national hockey selectors.


Q. You were appointed Hockey India’s High Performance Manager in early 2013 and you ended up serving as the men’s team coach twice on a stop-gap basis – on both occasions the team had performed really well under you.


I agree that both the 2013 Asia Cup at Ipoh and the 2014 Champions Trophy at Bhubaneshwar the team performed well, but my primary job is that of a High Performance Manager and if when I need to chip in I will, but largely I will be sticking to the high performance programme.


Q. The Indian team had a fantastic 2014 winning the Asiad gold, silver at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games besides a semifinal finish at the Champions Trophy. Realistically what can we expect from this team at the 2016 Rio Olympics?


The Rio Olympics is a big focus area and our goal will be to make a top-six finish. All teams are competitive and we have to be at our best to beat all these teams. We have to understand that every team is beatable and we need to play our best hockey to beat every team.


Q. India defeated all the big teams last year – Australia, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium. Is the team now fully prepared to beat all the world’s top sides?


Indian team have shown that they have the ammunition to beat the world’s top teams, but the key thing is whether they can beat them consistently. Modern hockey is unpredictable and anything is possible on a hockey turf. So many times we have seen how teams have made a mockery of the rankings.


Q. Were you surprised that India continued to languish at number nine in the FIH world rankings despite their impressive run in 2014?


To be honest, I was surprised to see that but then you have to keep playing consistent hockey and sooner than later we will be up in the world rankings.


Q. Australia has been one of the consistent teams in the world but seems to have fallen off after winning the World Cup?


The Kookaburras haven’t look dominating after winning the World Cup – also other teams are also working hard. Talking of consistency, let me tell you something recently Belgium beat Netherlands 4-0 and in the next game the Netherlands won 6-1. If we talk of consistency, modern hockey is such that it a huge challenge to stay consistent and Australia have been doing quite well at least until the 2014 World Cup.


Q. What will be Indian men’s hockey team’s international programme for 2015?


The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is coming up in April, followed by a Four Nation Tourney in New Zealand, Hockey World League semifinals in Belgium. Then we have the India-Australia Test series in India among others.


Q. How much keen are the world’s top teams to play India considering the latter’s recent impressive performances?


Well, every top side is keen to play India. Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and all other teams are keen to play India as they see it an opportunity to raise their performance bar. We are talking with the hockey federations of these countries and let’s see if we can have tourneys or Test series this year.


HIL great platform for Indian youngsters: Sardar Singh

Sardar Singh has been the pivot around which the Indian team revolves. The sturdy playmaker has an invincible presence in the midfield and has played more than 200 internationals for India. The 28-year-old Haryana DSP spoke in an exclusive interview.

Excerpts:
Q. How does it feel winning the Padma Shri?

It’s an honour to win such an award – I have won the Arjuna Award in 2012 – such awards are a big motivation to strive hard and keep improving my game and reap laurels for my country.

Q. You have had made many sacrifices to reach where you are today. Does this award give you the feeling that all your sacrifices are yielding results?


If you want it to make it to the top, you must be prepared to make sacrifices. Staying away from home for most part of the year is a routine thing for me. If I remember correctly, I spent around 50 days with my parents last year as hockey commitments kept me busy. I constantly look to improve and as Sachin paaji once said ‘never be satisfied with what you have achieved’. I believe the moment one gets satisfied with his achievements, that is the start of the end for a player.

Q. Indian team had a superb 2014 winning the Asiad gold, bagged a silver medal in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Test series win over Australia in Australia, followed by a semifinal finish in the Champions Trophy. Where does the national team go from here?


The team have a lot of youngsters who have hold their own in crunch games. There is a lot of self-belief in this team backed by consistency. Our preparations for the Olympics are looking good and going forward exposure trips to Europe will make it even better.

Q. Jamie Dwyer has said that the induction of the Hero Hockey India League has done a world of good to Indian hockey. Your thoughts.


If you look at our performance over the last twelve months, you will notice that the team is playing as a unit. We have performed well against top teams and even beat the big three – Germany, Australia and Netherlands besides Belgium. The boys need to keep working hard and results will come.

Q. The 2015 Hero Hockey India League is into its third edition. How do you assess the third edition?


I believe all six teams were well balanced and I expect all matches to be close. Our boys had a pretty hectic 2014 and are looking fresh playing the league after a break of about a month. I think the league is going to augment the supply line for the national team as no youngster can get a better platform than HIL to showcase their skills and attract the selectors’ attention.

Q. Pakistan players are not part of the Hero Hockey India League. Do you think they should be allowed to take part?


As a player I think if they have good players who can bring value to the league, they should play in the HIL. However, I respect whatever policies concerned authorities have regarding allowing Pakistan players to play in the league.

Q. There is so much of competition in the side with so many youngsters flowing through the ranks. How crucial is it to maintain top form and stay injury-free?


Its’ very important to keep performing and stay away from injuries. There is cut-throat competition in the side and staying focused is so crucial. As for me even though I have played more than 200 internationals I don’t take things for granted.

Q. You got engaged to England junior hockey player Ashpal Kaur last year. Any plans to get hitched this year?


For now, hockey is my focus. Let me see how things go as I’m not thinking of marriage at least for now.

Hockey India League sowing seeds of success for Indian hockey

There has always been a feeling in Indian hockey that bench strength is our Achilles heel – an area where top sides like Australia, Netherlands, Germany and Belgium hold a massive advantage considering the huge pool of players they have at their disposal. The HIL appears to have served India’s purpose of enhancing the supply line for the national team. One saw the likes of Mandeep and Akashdeep regularly feature in the senior team, while a few others kept playing for the Indian junior team with a fair amount of success.It was barely some months after the London disaster that Hockey India (HI) came up with a novelty, introducing the Hero Hockey India League in January 2013. The much-hyped league seemingly came to the rescue of Indian hockey unearthing some latent talents. Jalandhar boy Mandeep Singh turned into a poster boy of Indian hockey out of nowhere and played a big part in Ranchi Rhinos winning the inaugural HIL.
There isn’t an iota of doubt that Indian hockey is clambering up the performance ladder. The non-appearance of the national team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics for the first time ever, followed by a wooden-spoon finish at the 2012 London Olympics – their worst showing ever, are the probably the worst nightmares the team had to endure amid the steep slide in their fortunes over the years.

Mandeep was not the only success story of the Hero Hockey India League. The likes of Akashdeep Singh, Affan Yousuf, and Harjeet Singh came into their own, undaunted by the reputation of some of the big names of world hockey. Among the international lot, German Moritz Fuertse, Aussie trio of Jamie Dwyer, Chris Ciriello, Matt Ghodes, English duo of Ashley Jackson and Barry Middleton, Argentinean Gonzalo Peillat, Dutch goalie Jaap Stockmann, South African Justin Reid-Ross really lived up to their billing and have significantly contributed in ensuring that the HIL was a successfully rolled out product.

However, it cannot be denied that everything hasn’t been smooth for the organizers of HIL. The pullout of inaugural HIL champions Ranchi Rhinos and Dabur Mumbai Magicians from the 2015 edition did put a dampener on the tourney. But much of it evaporated as Sahara India Pariwar teamed up with Indian ODI cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni to float a new Ranchi franchise in a new avatar – Ranchi Rays, while DoIT Sports Management (India) Pvt. Ltd, which owns the Delhi franchise of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) took up the Mumbai franchise renaming it Dabang Mumbai.

All and said done, the Hero Hockey India League despite all the pitfalls along the way looks poised to emerge an even stronger product going into the 2015 edition. Indian hockey will be surely blessed!

Is Ranchi Rays as formidable as now defunct Ranchi Rhinos?

Indian World Cup cricket captain MS Dhoni teamed up with Sahara India Pariwar to buy the Ranchi franchise renaming it as Ranchi Rays. So how much has changed in the team ever since Ranchi Rhinos turned into Ranchi Rays? Well, first of all, the Ranchi outfit has a new coach in Indian junior men’s team coach Harendra Singh – a known tough taskmaster and shrewd coach much like his predecessor South African Gregg Clark who was in charge for the 2013 and 2014 editions before stepping down.

Hockey enjoys a strong following in Ranchi. No wonder there was a pall of sadness all around when Ranchi Rhinos was pulled out of the 2015 Hero Hockey India League. The organizers of the Hero Hockey India League fully realized the soaring popularity of the sport in Ranchi and staged the semifinal and the final matches of both the 2013 and 2014 editions there. Of course, the packed stands at the Astroturf Hockey Stadium only vindicated the line of thought of Hockey India to have the knockout phase in Ranchi.


The Patel – Uniexcel Group – which owned the Ranchi franchise ­– withdrew from the much-hyped league much ahead of the 2015 edition citing differences over franchise fee with the organizers. So the Ranchi Rhinos exited from the HIL, leaving hockey fans wondering whether Ranchi will at all have a franchise in the 2015 edition.

German Moritz Fuertse is not part of the 2015 edition and English playmaker Ashley Jackson is wearing the captaincy armband. Team-wise, a large chunk of the players from Ranchi Rhinos are representing Ranchi Rays. Spanish goalkeeper Francisco Cortes, Englishman Barry Middleton, New Zealander Nick Wilson, South African duo of Austin Smith and Justin Reid Ross and Australian Fergus Kavanagh provide the foreign flavour, while the likes of Manpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas, Kothajit Singh are some of the big Indian names playing for the Ranchi outfit.

So is Ranchi as strong as Ranchi Rhinos? One may say naam mein kiya rakha hai but Ranchi Rays appears to be a formidable unit much like Ranchi Rays. Since the fulcrum of the side is build around the players that were part of Ranchi Rhinos, they are a team to watch out for and can give any team a run for their money.

Looking to make the most of opportunities, says Kedar Jadhav

Kedar Jadhav has been one of the most consistent performers for his state side Maharashtra over the past few seasons. His consistency in the Ranji Trophy has been a big factor in him being on the national selectors’ radar, which resulted in a national call-up, culminating in his one-day international debut against Sri Lanka in Ranchi last November.

The 29-year-old strokeful batsman, who was among the 30 World Cup probables before missing the final cut, spoke in an exclusive interview.

Excerpts:

You were part of the 30 World Cup
probables but did not make the cut. Any disappointments?

Not really! I see things practically and I also have to realize that I made my one-day international debut only one series before the World Cup, so there are no hard feelings. It is still a learning curve for me and I’m looking to sharpen my skill sets and get better with each game be it a domestic or international game.

How exciting was it to make your ODI debut against Sri Lanka?


Donning the India colours is an honour and I was really excited taking the India cap from assistant coach Sanjay Bangar. I just wanted to enjoy my first international game without getting jittery about it and it went off well. It was a big moment for my home state Maharastra as well.

You scored a quick-fire 20 off 24 balls. Memories of that brief knock.


I was feeling good about the way I was batting and should have finished the game. Captain Virat Kohli later told me to imbibe the habit of finishing the game as it can be beneficial to me as well as to the team. The pep talk from Virat will surely help me in the future.

Tell us a bit about the Indian dressing room atmosphere?


Well, it was quite vibrant and I really felt comfortable mingling with my teammates. Every team member made me feel comfortable and there were no nerves when I strode out to the field.

Having made your ODI debut, is Test cricket your next target?


Test cricket is the ultimate thing for any cricketer and I really wish to someday wear the Team India whites. Opportunities will be there and all I have to do is to remain consistent and grab those opportunities.

You have been scoring consistently in the domestic circuit over the past few seasons. Do you think that has really helped you to be on the national selectors’ radar?


Absolutely! Consistency is the key. I have this knack of getting promising starts and then getting out which was not helping my cause. I have worked on this facet and the results have been satisfying.

There was a line of thinking earlier that you are getting those sizzling thirties, forties and fifties and then getting out playing reckless shots.


True. I was looking good to play the big knocks and all of a sudden I would play a rash shot and get out. If you look at my stats, you will see that I have got more consistent towards building my innings rather than throwing my wicket away after getting in.

You have played the IPL for three franchises – Royal Bangalore Challengers, Kochi Tuskers and Delhi Daredevils. How has the IPL helped you as a player?


The IPL is a great platform for any upcoming cricket and it allowed me to grow as a batsman. I got the opportunity to face some of the world’s top bowlers – an exposure which has served me well.

Who is the most difficult bowler you have faced in your cricketing career?


Dale Steyn. He has pace, swings the ball both ways prodigiously and can be a lethal customer at all times.

How do you assess the standard of domestic cricket in India?


I think it is getting better and better all the time. Pitches have improved in leaps and bounds as there are too many bowler-friendly decks unlike many years back when batsmen used to dominate the bowlers. We now have third umpire for Ranji games which is really nice and facilities have been exemplary for the players.

Interview: I don't fear losing: with HS Prannoy

Indian badminton has been growing in stature over the years, with a slew of players making their opponents worldwide sit up and take notice of them. HS Prannoy is another shuttler, who has been sedately clambering up the performance ladder with a string of impressive performances over the past few months.

The 22-year-old Kerala lad is on a ‘high’ having won the recent Tata Open in Mumbai. Prannoy has been in resounding form, having earlier racked up his maiden singles crown at the Indonesian Masters in September last year, following a semifinal finish at the Vietnam Open.

Prannoy, currently ranked 21 in the world, spoke  in an exclusive interview.

Q You had finished runners-up at the 2013 Tata Open going down to Saurabh Varma, but must be chuffed going one better this time around defeating MRV Gurusaidutt in the final?


Yeah it was really great winning the Tata open this time. It was a good tournament for me as I could beat so many good Indian players.

Q You started 2014 on a strong note reaching the semifinals of the India Grand Prix Gold tourney and then had a modest run of results, but you really took off in the second half of the year with a runners-up finish at the Vietnam Open followed by your maiden singles win at the Indonesian Masters?


I think I played really well throughout 2014, but the results started coming in the second half with Vietnam and Indonesia tourneys and so many good tournaments followed by that. I think it was just because I started played much more confidently in the second half of 2014.

Q How would you assess your maiden singles triumph in the Indonesian Masters?


It was a must-needed win for me in Indonesia as a singles crown win was long due for me. I was disappointed after losing in the final of the Vietnam Open, but after that I went on to win the Indonesian Open the next week, which was really good.

Q You started the year 2014 with a ranking of around 49 and now you are perched at 21 – the country’s third highest singles player – to which single factor would you attribute your ranking leap in the last twelve months?


I think I have become more consistent now and the one factor is my confidence level, which has really gone up and I don’t have any fear of losing, which has made me to play much freely

Q You have been training at the Gopichand Badminton Academy since 2011 – how do you rate him as a coach?


As far I’m concerned he is the best coach. After coming to the academy I have improved my game so much and it's all because of his changes in training. Gopi Sir really knows what's going in the world badminton and keeps changing the training accordingly. That's the best part of him.

Q There is a feeling that you have been around for some time, but hasn’t quite lived up to his promise. Do you think you are in the best form of your life and your current run will enhance the impression that you are all set to realize your immense potential.


I know success does not come so easily and I’m one of them, who had to wait for quite some time and I guess now I’m playing really well and maybe in my best form. And maybe I can play much better in the coming days.

Q Who according to you is the toughest player to beat and why?


Among the current lot I guess Chen Long is one of the toughest players to beat because if you get your strategy wrong against him it's tough to play. He is very fit and strong and it's pretty tough to penetrate him without a correct strategy.

Q How do you look assess the current health of Indian badminton?


Indian badminton is looking really great as of now. We have so many good results coming our way in last 2-3 years. (Kidambi) Srikanth, (Parupalli) Kashyap, (Nehwal) Saina, (PV) Sindhu all are at their top and have been winning so many tournaments. So this is one of the best periods of Indian badminton.