Indian hockey may still be a fair distance away from closing the gap with the Europeans and the Australians, but coach of the junior men's hockey team, Gregg Clark, feels the Junior World Cup could be the start of recapturing Indian hockey's golden history.
The hockey world will have its eyes on India over the first half of December when New Delhi hosts the 10th Junior Men's Hockey World Cup, where the Manpreet Singh-led Indian team will try to win their second trophy in a 16-team competition that will run from December 6-15.
India won the junior world cup in 2001, with their next best finish coming in 2005 when they lost the bronze-medal match to Spain to finish fourth. But if you go by Clark's words, India have a very good chance of topping the podium after 12 years to delight the home fans.
Good chance, but there's pressure too
"We've got a good chance. [But] We don't want to put any pressure on ourselves; there's enough of that playing a home tournament. I think the players and the management realise that if we do play according to our ability, we do give ourselves a very good chance. Playing at home always puts pressure on the team. It's a very expectant hockey public. But you can either let that pressure affect you negatively or you can use that as a positive. We need to rise to the occasion, and I'm really confident this team has the character to do that."
All in readiness?
"We are looking forward to the next week, soaking up. It's great to play a tournament like this in your home country, so we really hope we soak it up as much as possible. I'm asking the players to be focused. As young guys, it is really important for them as well."
"It's very difficult to pick the toughest teams. There's a whole bunch of teams that we haven't really played recently. But the European sides will always be strong: Holland, Germany and Belgium, who are the current junior champions in Europe."
"We have constantly worked on all aspects of our game. We'll just keep working every training session with our variations [on penalty corners], with our specialists. We know this is a really, really important part of the game. If we score on our corners during the tournament, this can be really big. Gurjinder [Singh] has come back, we have really good flickers in Amit [Rohidas] and Sukhmanjit [Singh]. We are just training really hard. We have had Sandeep Singh come in to give some expert training to the flickers on a number of occasions. That's the area we are focusing on and we will try to prepare as accurately as possible.
"[Goalkeeper] Harjot Singh has played the majority of our games as No. 1. Sushant [Tirkey] is a very good goalkeeper and they are both pushing each other really hard for the No. 1 spot. So until we hit the pitch in Game 1 [against Netherlands] on December 6, that position for me is still up for grabs. Harjot has probably got his nose in front. They are working hard in training with [goalkeeping coach] Dave Staniforth."
Expectations from practice games
"The training matches are really important to us, not necessarily the result, though we would want to keep a winning momentum going, may be try a few specifics that we will try to introduce in our pool games. Practice games are very important to us to use those tactics in a competitive environment. There is no better way of doing it."
Netherlands first up
"It's gonna be a really tough game. Obviously, we are gonna put a lot of focus on achieving a positive result. But the good thing is that if we don't get a positive result there, we'll still have two games to rectify and finish in top two to make the quarter-finals."
What this tournament means to India?
"We want to replicate Indian hockey's golden history. But you've got to start somewhere with one step at a time. May be this junior world cup is the start of that. We can only hope. India obviously has a rich history in hockey and a very distinct style of play, but perhaps the structure needs to be tightened up a bit. In years to come, what India desire so badly will definitely come."
On association with Hockey India
"To be honest with you, I've given it [extension of coaching contract] a little bit of thought, but not much. I like to just focus on one project at a time. And I really have put a lot of focus and energy into this junior world cup. Whatever happens beyond, I'm sure will be according to play, based on what we do there [world cup]."
I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here in India, coaching these guys. We have an incredible group of players who I get on really well with. So the platform is there for me, the players and Hockey India to continue our liaison. But still there's lots to happen between now and the end of tournament. So let's see.
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