New Delhi: A match against Pakistan brings the best out of Indian sportspersons, and at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament on Tuesday, India will hope exactly that from a young team, especially in a must-win situation after losing the opening two encounters.
India have gone into the tournament with 10 of their 18 men in the under-21 age group, which clearly suggests coach Michael Nobbs' objective of trying out youngsters to prepare for the Junior World Cup later this year at home.
But nothing motivates a team more than a victory, and India desperately need one after going down 3-4 to Australia and 1-2 to Korea in their previous two matches. They currently share the last spot with New Zealand - both without a point to show and having the same goal difference of -2.
Indian team practising at the stadium in Ipoh, Malaysia. (Hockey India)
Led by Danish Mujtaba in the absence of Sardar Singh, who has been rested, the young Indian team had their moments in the first two games, even though they lost on both the occasions. PR Sreejesh has been the most consistent performer so far, having made more than half a dozen saves in his two appearance in this edition at Ipoh. Rupinder Pal Singh scored two goals in the Australia game to raise hopes of a comeback; however, he had an off day against Korea squandering as many as six penalty corners, which cost India the game they should have won.
Youngsters Mandeep Singh and Malak Singh have been pretty impressive; however, their sparks of brilliance have been too irregular for India's liking, not to mention the disappointing last touch after promising forays into the striking circle. Nithin Thimmaiah too has promised a lot without delivering so far in this tournament.
Danish has disappointingly been very passive in his first sting as captain. India expect much more from their experienced forward, especially since he is leading a young brigade and should, therefore, lead by example.
India coach, Michael Nobbs, though isn't much perturbed and reiterates his objective of using this opportunity to find players who can form the core of Indian squad for the Junior World Cup. "I think I need to put what we are doing in perspective. Our objective here is to do as well as we can. We have ten under-21 juniors here and it's a long-term objective to give exposure to them for their upcoming Junior World cup event in December," Nobbs told IBNLive.com from Malaysia.
As far as the next match against Pakistan is concerned, the two archrivals start as joint favourites since Pakistan too have blown hot and cold despite their skipper and star drag-flicker's winning hat-trick in the tournament opener against New Zealand. Pakistan won that match 4-3 but lost to Australia by an embarrassing 0-6 margin. They are currently No. 4 with three points - behind Australia, Malaysia and Korea, respectively.
It points towards a susceptible Pakistan defence that has conceded nine goals so far as compared to India who have let in six. But when it comes to drag-flicks, which is where most matches these days are won or lost, Imran scores over his counterpart Rupinder, who is still trying to come out of the shadow of VR Raghunath and Sandeep Singh. While Raghunath has been rested for the event, Sandeep is among the stand-bys.
Nobbs is aware of Pakistan's hunger, especially after a humiliating loss against Australia, while assuring that his talented but inexperienced team will try its best to get a win under its belt. "The game against Pakistan will be the usual tough encounter and Pakistan, coming off a thrashing by Australia, will be certainly trying to make amends for that result. We, on the other hand, have lost the first two games by just lack of experience and this may be a telling factor in this next game. However, we will certainly be trying for a good result for our team and our first victory," he said.