Sunday, November 14, 2010

India open hockey campaign against Hong Kong in Asian Games

Indian men's hockey team starts its Asian Games campaign against minnows Hong Kong here on Monday, well aware that only a gold medal in the event would open the door for a direct entry to the 2012 London Olympics.

India had missed the Olympics berth for the first time in their history two years ago, when the team, led by Dilip Tirkey, lost to Britain in the final of the qualifying tournament in Chile, leading to a total overhaul in the hockey set-up.

The eight-time Olympic champions had a nightmare of an experience in the 2006 Doha Asian Games where they failed to qualify for the semifinals for the first time. India ended up a lowly eighth in the last World Cup in March in New Delhi.

Despite these reverses, hopes continued to swell in the nation's hockey followers who would be hoping that Rajpal Singh and his men would deliver the goods by winning the gold in this southern Chinese city.

    But the pitfalls are many in the tough passage ahead and the team would have to put its best foot forward in the Games here to clinch the eagerly awaited gold medal, which they had last won in 1998 at Bangkok, only their second title in the history of the Games.

    The major threats for India, apart from traditional foes Pakistan who have come here with great determination to avenge their 7-3 defeat in the Delhi Commonwealth Games, would come from defending champions South Korea, aiming for a hat-trick, hosts China and an unpredictable Malaysia.

    National coach Harendra Singh, who arrived here with the team on the 5th of this month, said the team's only target was to win the gold and a direct entry into the 2012 Olympics and nothing less.

    "The actual target is to gain a direct berth in the London Olympics and for that we have to go for the gold and nothing less than that would solve the problem. We are improving day by day," Harendra said.

    Aware that the weak point of the team was its defence, that stand exposed last month against Australia in the league phase as well as the final of the CWG, Harendra said the members were working hard on this aspect before the campaign gets underway.

    "Defence was a concern in the Commonwealth Games and we are working hard on it," he said.

    Harendra said that things have improved with Dhananjay Mahadik and Sandeep Singh taking care of the important task.

    "It was important to take it match by match and not focus too far ahead. I think we have got to play the way we played against Pakistan and England (semi-final) in the Commonwealth Games. It is crucial to take it match by match, in getting three points from every match and then focusing on the semi finals," the coach said.

    The one-time world-beaters are expected to face modest opposition in their first two Group B matches against Hong Kong and Bangladesh (Nov 17) but things would heat up from November 20, when they clash with Pakistan who have recalled seasoned penalty corner expert Sohail Abbas for the event.

    Their last group match is on November 21 against Japan. After their CWG rout against India, Pakistan are also desperate to salvage their reputation.

    Pakistan captain Zeeshan Ashraf said the team is looking to avoid the qualifying procedure for London Olympics and a win over India would boost their confidence.

    "We want to go to London without any trouble and we won't allow the Indians to get away as they did in Delhi," Ashraf said.

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