HIL expected to raise bar in fifth edition (Preview)

Mumbai, Jan 20 (IANS) A fiercely-competitive Coal India Hockey India League (HIL) is primed to roll out when the fifth edition of the six-team tournament starts with a clash between Dabang Mumbai and Ranchi Rays at the Mahindra Hockey Stadium here on Saturday.

New foreign imports in the league, such as Germany’s Christopher Ruhr, Dutch veteran defender Robert van der Horst, Dutch midfielders Robbert Kemperman and Billy Bakker, defender Sander de Wijn, Australian forward Tom Craig, Belgians Florent van Aubel, Emmanuel Stockbroekx and Arthur Van Doren, goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch will add to the flavour of the month-long tournament.

Last year, every team had the chance to enter the semi-finals till the last match, and going by the quality of players signed by the franchise, facilitated by the fact that 2017 sees no Olympics or World Cup, this edition is expected to again raise the quality of play.

Fresh from their exploits at the Junior World Cup in December, the members of the Indian junior men’s team will also make sure their respective teams benefit from their prime form.

They will also look to showcase their sustained form in order to push their entry into the senior national team.

Varun Kumar and Arman Qureshi, two of the Junior World Cup-winning members, will feature in Jaypee Punjab Warriors, who will will be looking to keep their title. They have also picked some promising players to bolster their side.

They have only become more formidable this year with the likes of veterans Mark Knowles, van der Horst, Sardar Singh, S.V Sunil. Injured drag-flicker Christopher Ciriello has been replaced by Dutchman Mink van der Weerden, who will make his HIL debut.

They will begin their title defence against Dabang Mumbai on January 27 here. Mumbai, who failed to qualify for the semi-finals by a small margin in the last edition will be aiming to make it to the play-off for the first time.

German forward Florian Fuchs, drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh, Australian Kieran Govers, Dutch internationals Sander de Wijn and Robbert Kemperman and Affan Yousuf can pull off magic for the Mumbai outfit.

They will face former champions Ranchi Rays in the opening match of the league here on Saturday. Ranchi, with coach Harendra Singh, who also guided junior India hockey team to clinch the World Cup after a gap of 15 years, also seemed a well-balanced side.

Ranchi, who have conceded the least number of goals in the league history, have signed the veteran Indian mid-fielder Gurbaj Singh along with dynamic German forward Christopher Ruhr to strengthen their line-up.

Ashely Jackson, who has been the main player for the Ranchi since its inaugural edition in 2015 will also support from the other end, as will his veteran fellow Brit, Barry Middleton.

Birendra Lakra, Kothajit Singh and the Australian duo of Fergus Kavanagh and Timothy Deavin form a formidable defensive pairing and they will be the base of their success.

Kalinga lancers, who lost in the summit clash against Punjab in fourth edition, will also be looking to go the full distance this time. Lancers will feature 20 players with 12 Indian players and eight foriegn players with German player Moritz Fuerste leading the side.

Last edition’s highest goal-scorer Glenn Turner of Australia is back to enthrall the fans, while defenders Dipsan Tirkey, Amit Rohidass and Nilam Sanjip Xess of Odisha will be the centre of attraction in home matches.

They will play five matches at home and will face Delhi in its opening game on Sunday followed by a match against Ranchi Rays on Monday.

Delhi Waveriders, on other hand, will be banking on the promising young players. Newly appointed skipper Rupinder Pal Singh, who will take charge from New Zealand’s Simon Child, will be also eyeing to give Delhi their second title.

Apart from South Africa’s Austin Smith and Justin Reid-Ross, Argentina’s Manuel Brunet, Vincent Vanasch of Belgium, Delhi also signed two promising players from Indian hockey, including 21-year-old Harjeet Singh — captain of India’s junior hockey national team, and 19-year-old Mandeep Singh, who emerged as the rare gem that India unearthed during the HIL 2013. Simon Child and Talwinder Singh will be at the heart of their attack.

Uttar Pradesh Wizards, who have never went past the semi-finals in the last four years, present an interesting combination of talent and hard work.

V.R. Raghunath will be seen playing for the Uttar Pradesh alongside the likes of Argentine star drag-flicker Gonzalo Peillat, P.R. Sreejesh, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Agustin Mazzilli Sander Baart from the Netherlands and Rio Olympics silver medal winning team Belgium’s Arthur van Doren and Florent van Aubel, amongst other players.

The teams will play a double round-robin preliminary league played on home and away basis followed by the semi-finals and final on February 25 and 26, respectively.