"I saw a real Indian team playing today against Pakistan. The dominance and winning desire show by Indian junior's at Johor Bahru was amazing!" former Olympian Jagbir Singh tweeted shortly after India's win. The World Cup bronze won by junior women's team and the men's dominating 4-0 win over Pakistan on Wednesday highlights that fact. But it's hard to fathom that a sport deep-rooted into the Indian sporting culture - from the tribal belt in Odisha to Punjab and deep into the southern part of the country - continues to slip further behind the Europeans and the Australians. In that light, the development programme at the junior level is of monumental significance, especially after warring factions of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and Hockey India (HI) launched their own versions of domestic leagues - the World Series Hockey (WSH) and Hockey India League (HIL), respectively.
Before being welcomed back into the fold by HI last month, many players who could still have served the country for a year or two were barred from national selection after signing for the unsanctioned WSH. While it cost India a last-place finish at the London Olympics, the country's worst ever, in hindsight it worked in favour of Indian hockey as the development at the junior level started getting more attention, which has now resulted in good bench strength for the senior team. Michael Nobbs, who left as India coach earlier this year on health grounds, laid emphasis on an inclusive growth of Indian hockey, wherein he put a lot of emphasis on the juniors. "As I have said, the future of hockey in India is juniors. With the loss of the WSH players to the main hockey system for the last 16 months, India had to develop the junior programme," Nobbs told IBNLive from Australia.
"This group of juniors [playing the Sultan of Johor Cup] are a great bunch coached extremely well by Baljit Saini and Gregg Clark, who should really be looked at for the national coaching job as they have been intimately involved with these players for the last two years," Nobbs said. "After the Junior World Cup, most of these players will move into the senior team and will have had considerable experience already playing senior hockey, and we will start to see more consistent results for the senior Indian team.
" The junior team playing in Malaysia is led by Manpreet Singh, who has been part of the senior squad for more than one year. Talwinder Singh, Sukhmanjeet Singh, goalkeeper Harjot Singh and Affan Yousuf are already knocking at the selectors' door. Like Manpreet, Mandeep Singh, Gurmail Singh, Amit Rohidas, Malak Singh and of late Ramandeep Singh have already made their senior-team debuts, and will take that experience into the Junior World Cup later this year. "They are a really talented group of players and should finish in the top one or two in the junior World cup. A great effort in this tournament [Sultan of Johor Cup], and they should be proud of what they have done so far," Nobbs added. Not just for men, progress is being seen in women's hockey as well - highlighted by the historic bronze medal at the Junior World Cup in August. So no two ways about it - the path to resurgence indeed goes through the junior level.