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Indian foals want to build on hockey bronze in Tokyo




After a nearly two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the hockey world is returning to a familiar playground: Bhubaneswar. This time, however, with an undeniable difference.

The cavernous Kalinga Stadium, normally bustling on match night, is being stripped of its usual fanfare. There is no queue outside the stadium for tickets, no vendors selling flags, and no face painters setting up makeshift shops. There is only a few guards to ensure that only the entitled ones enter this sprawling facility.

Blame the pandemic that the World Junior Championship is turning into a watered-down, low-key affair. The 16-country tournament kicks off on Wednesday behind closed doors and in a tight bio-secure environment. All this has taken some shine off, but has not made the World Cup any less relevant.

Shane McLeod, the most successful coach in the world in the past five years, puts it into perspective. It’s a really good way to know which countries will do well in the next eight years, said the New Zealander, who coached the Belgian team that won silver at the Rio Olympics, the 2018 World Cup and gold. in Tokyo. . It is no coincidence that the teams that played in the final of the last Junior World Cup finished one and three in the Olympics.

McLeod was referring to India and Belgium, who were the champions and runner-up respectively at the 2016 Junior World Cup. Seven Indian and five Belgian players, including reserves, played from that final at the Tokyo Olympics.

In that context, the World Junior Championships takes on a lot of meaning. The next two weeks will provide some insight into whether the player supply chain will continue to produce talent as India strives to continue their resurgence and hope to build on the bronze in Tokyo.

But it won’t be that simple.

The defending champions and hosts are kicking off their campaign against France, a team that has been beating above its weight in recent years. That’s not the only reason the match could be a potential banana peel, though.

Like many other teams, India enters the tournament blindfolded.

First match after 776 days

Wednesday’s game against France is India’s first under-21 league game after 776 days. The past few days they played against the Netherlands, USA and Germany to warm up for the World Junior Championships. However, those were nowhere near replicating real match scenarios. The pandemic ravaged the hockey calendar but had an even more devastating impact on junior programs around the world as there are few international tournaments for them anyway.

Consequently, not much information is available about players from other teams, with coaches relying largely on the styles and patterns used by a particular country’s seniors to guess how the under-21s might play. At the same time, coaches also don’t know how their own players would react to a given situation.

Graham Reid, India’s senior team coach who has been put in charge of the juniors for this competition, admitted that. We have no idea (how the performance of the players would be). And I think that will be the answer if you ask any of the coaches in the world because we really have no idea what the opposition is like, he said.

stay together

One of the few things that works in India’s favor is that the core of the current Under-21 pack has been together since 2017. Eight of them, including captain Vivek Sagar Prasad, were part of the squad that won the silver medal at the 2018 Youth Youth Championship. Olympics, although that was played in a five-against format.

However, most of their time has been spent within the confines of the Sports Authority of Indias Southern Center in Bengaluru, where the players were kept in a bio-bubble during the pandemic.

Cut off from the rest of the hockey world, India’s junior team spent time in the training camp learning English and getting motivational and psychological sessions. The only matches they were allowed to play were either within the squad or against the senior India team. They even beat us in one of the matches we played, captain Manpreet Singh said.

Seniors Influence

However, the influence of the senior team on the players under 21 has been enormous.

The playing style of the junior teams is very similar to that of the seniors as both sets of players have trained together according to the same philosophy. The juniors were coached by BJ Kariappa before Reid took the temporary lead immediately after the Tokyo Olympics. However, coaches are not the only ones looking after the players.

Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, one of the heroes of India’s bronze medal match against Germany in Tokyo, has been closely involved with Prashant Chauhan and Pawan, the two managers of the junior team.

Drag flicker Sanjay, who is the vice-captain, has taken advice from veteran team members Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinderpal Singh. They spent a day or two with us every week teaching us how to beat the first runner, how to take the first few steps while tapping, and how to let go of the ball, Sanjay said.

Prasad, the only player on the junior team who was also part of the Olympics, looks to Manpreet for inspiration. Prasad plays as a centre-back, in the same position as Manpreet, but it is the leadership qualities that impress the 21-year-old.

He has kept a close eye on Manpreet, who captained India at the 2013 Junior World Cup before becoming one of the star players of the seniors. I’ve seen Manpreet interact with the team, bring everyone together. I want to repeat that in a tournament as important as this one, Prasad said.

Prasad is seen by many as future captaincy material. And the Junior World Cup will give a glimpse into his capabilities as a leader. Just as it will glance at the stars of the future. For them, the empty stadium and lack of buzz won’t matter much.




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