Bhubaneswar, Dec 5:
The Indian hockey team’s rise in the last six months will be put to further test as it gets ready for the eight-nation Hero Champions Trophy starting Saturday at Kalinga Stadium in the Odisha’s capital city .
Though the Sardar Singh-led team’s preparation for the nine-day tournament has not been perfect, the 18-member squad can take heart from their strong performance in the past few months.
But Chief coach Terry Walsh, who guided the team to the Asian Games gold medal after 16 years and the silver medal in the Commonwealth Games followed by a rare Test series win over world champions Australia, decided to quit his post.
And it will not be easy for high performance director and interim coach Roelant Oltmans as the team begins its campaign against the 2008 and 2012 Olympic champions Germany in Pool B. India will meet World Cup bronze medallists Argentina Sunday and Olympic and World Cup silver medallists the Netherlands Tuesday.
“Team India is in superb form and after a remarkable performance in the 2014 Asian Games and Test Series in Australia, we are more than confident of doing well in this tournament. The team selected has the right combination and will give a tough time to the opponents,” Oltmans said.
“The boys are training hard. I know there are high expectations so we have to play accordingly. The boys are really keen to once again produce a fantastic performance in 2014.”
The home team will once again look up to its star goalkeeper and vice-captain P.R. Sreejesh for inspiration. Defenders VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh’s penalty corner executions will also be scrutinised.
Up front, the team will depend on S.V. Sunil, Akashdeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah to score the bulk of the goals.
“All players are excited for the tournament. We are also doing well in our practice matches. So we hope we will perform well like previous tournaments. Our target will be to perform well and enjoy it,” skipper and centre- half Sardar, who has played in 200 international matches, said.
In the other pool, five-time defending champions Australia will battle it out with rising powerhouses Belgium, England and Pakistan.
All the eight teams will play in the quarter-finals.
Australian captain Eddie Ockenden is hopeful of retaining the title.
“This is a fantastic tournament and everything is important about this championship. We will be playing England in the first match and it’s going to be a really tough game,” the 27-year-old striker said.
“We are a strong team and will try and play the best that we can and win the first match. And then we’ll gradually move on from there to the next game and so on and will aim at getting better every day. Our team is very strong and we always ensure that we come into a tournament with our best team. We are looking forward to some exciting clashes from tomorrow.”
Australia, coached by Graham Reid, are without regular skipper and central defender Mark Knowles, inspirational playmaker Jamie Dwyer and experienced forwards Glenn Turner and Kieran Govers.
Also, the Kookaburras will play in a major tournament for the first time after the departure of master tactician Ric Charlesworth, who retired after guiding the team to victory in the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.
Meanwhile, tickets are selling like hot cakes in the city as the event is the first major international tournament to be held here.
Built in 2010 with a capacity of 5,000 spectators, the stadium with a blue turf is the home ground of Hero Hockey India League (HIL) outfit Kalinga Lancers. (IANS)