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HWL SF2: The thrill of Antwerp is Nikkin (6/20/2015)
--K. Arumugam
Notwithstanding the fact that much of the sheen which otherwise would have been there in the Hockey World League Semifinal League 2015 will not be there for India as it had already qualified for the Rio Olympics. Still the event that starts today at Antwerp, Belgium, evokes some interest from Indian perspective as it is first serious avenue to make baby step decisions on the new coach Paul van Ass and also a few stars are on the sternest test of their career which may make or mar their future.

Antwerp is perhaps the only event where Indian men can play freely without any pressure of achieving any target, as the main purpose every other participant is to book the Rio ticket exactly where Indian men are comfortably placed.

Indian men are the only team in Antwerp, while South Korea on the distaff side, to have already booked the Rio seat by virtue of Gold at the last Asian Games, one of the five continental routes to the Olympic berths.

The suspense element that the tournament of the day -- which involves 10 teams in one continent while the other ten in the other -- is definitely Olympic qualification especially such as whether Pakistan, which had missed last World Cup, will be able to make amends here to make the Rio grade.

But what interest can already-qualified India have at Antwerp?

undefined Winning the Semifinal title, as we expect in such events like the Asian Games, the Asia Cup, the Commonwealth Games etc?

Definitely not.

Because semifinal league title itself is not gold, because its midway event; there is one more step called HWL Finals yet to be.

At least India will have a task to finish at top six so that to qualify for the next step, HWL Finals, but India already made it by virtue of host.

Honestly speaking, HWL is a kind of labyrinth that not many can understand its structural shenanigans.

For example: India plays first match against France today.

How this match is categorized?

First league match of Pool A. Which league? Its semifinal League. What is semifinal league? Its Hockey World League’s Semifinal League. This first match, or for that matter the first four matches for any team, carries minimum three ‘League’ in its label!

So, France match is first league (or pool) match of Semifinal League of Hockey World League for India. Understood?

As such, honestly speaking the labyrinth of Leagues is such that one League real lost its real meaning of League!!

Even if India wins Antwerp common fan cannot relish as it is halfway of a League!

Leave the leagues headache as it is.

Indian interest lies on two counts at Antwerp.

Firstly, this first real test for new coach Paul van Ass. That will definitely start with knock-out phase.

First four matches are played just to relegate one team from each pool, while four from each pool will play out Quarterfinal League.

undefined Apart from the much expected India-Pakistan match which is definitely a TRP winner for official telecaster Star Sports channel, others are nothing but academic. There is some merit to play these matches well simply because these matches are telecast alive.

But the new coach’s acumen will come in for sharp focus from Quartefinal stage onwards.

Paul team had two notable missings, both by injuries; V Raghunath and SV Sunil.

That Paul is a trier came to the fore when he opted one drag flicker and boldly inducted two youngsters in Devinder Walmiki and Lalit Upadhyay.

Return of elder of Devinder, Yuvraj after a long break due to injury and injustice is another focus area.

Lalit is a sharp forward while Devinder is a proven all rounder – he shone as a dragflicker, forward / medio in the WSH, and continued the all rounder calibre in Indian Railways winning the latest Hockey India National Championship.

But the question is, how much time will the duo get to play?

Paul, being a successful European coach will be a miser in terms of giving time to players, as he will try to trade off energy balance among all players.

In this scenario, the new comers might turn out to be gainers as successful coaches don’t go by big names, who are hardly substituted by coaches who lack confidence in themselves.

The next question is, will the duo who may get equitable time on the field grab the opportunity that come their way.

We have to wait and see.

It is easy to perform reasonably in invitational tournaments and bilateral series but not that easy in the internationally acclaimed tournament such as HWL SFL 2015.

Captain Sardar had been on the downhill for long. Gurbaj is ever reliable. Goalie Sreejesh, who conceded a silly goal against Pakistan at Bhubneswar in the semifinal, that cost India a medal, need to be more alert if he has to keep the tag of match winner, which made his a darling of hockey world at present.

Manpreet Singh and Mandeep Singh are two puzzles and bogs us down for long, as the duo had not been performing as much as expected. The duo had got sufficient break, exposure and experience, but had been stagnated.

These two sher-e-Punjab need to prove their continued selection is merit based not image based.

Rupinder Pal, definitely a match winner, seemed to have lost the confidence of new coach, who seem to count on old but new face like ……….. Singh; but thank his stars for come back.

With a long reach, fighting spirit, and with the added advantage at penalty corners, Rupinder has many positives in him, and its here in Antwerp he has to showcase them so as to count for Rio journey.

undefined Antwerp therefore definitely is a test case for Rupinder Pal.

Brendra Lakra, just been declared as the Best Player of 2014, and with that Rs.25 lac, is a vital cog. He is a bit on decline, and its here in Antwerp he may steady his performance and prove his critics wrong.

Yuvraj, a favourite and lucky mascot of Michael Nobbs, is an opportune forward, and will prove his selection is genuine. He has an eye for goals.

A couple of goals at Antwerp set his career continue to flourish. In India, he is domestically sidelined as top notch teams such from Airlines and Oil Sector shunned him, leaving him to find a sage heaven in star-neglected Railways.

undefined His younger sibling, Devinder is no more a thin, struggling player whom he was when made debut at Johor four years ago, but a well-built, seasoned campaigner, who worked hard and waited for long to hit the headlines.

His selection itself is a news now, and if he gets his due share of play time it will then do a world of good for him.

Nippy Nikkin Thimmaiah is one star whose every move will inject adrenalin in every Indian fan.

His hat-trick against mighty Australia is still fresh in everybody’s mind, as this has changed the fortune of otherwise dull campaign of recent Azlan Shah Cup.

A hat-trick against Australia is not any Indian achieved against Australia on the synthetic turf, and the history beckons him now.

He is one forward the nation can count on.

The thrill of Antwerp is definitely Nikkin.

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