Bhubaneswar: After two successful seasons, the Hero Hockey India League is back with fresh vigour and anticipation in its third edition starting with a clash between hosts Kalinga Lancers and debutant Ranchi Rays clash at the Kalinga Stadium, here Thursday.
Young talents of both Kalinga Lancers and Ranchi Rays are raring to face each in what promises to be an exciting contest.
After finishing at the bottom of the table in their debut season, Kalinga Lancers will be desperate to prove their detractors wrong with a much-improved performance this year.
The Ranchi Rays, co-owned by Indian cricket team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni,on the other hand, will be making its debut in HIL this year and will be focussed on maintaining the good work of the previous Ranchi franchise, Ranchi Rhinos, who won the inaugural HIL in 2012.
The Lancers will definitely start as favourites on their home turf as they stunned the previous Ranchi Team 4-1 at the same venue last season.
Led by Vikramkanth, the Lancers have a young team which has the potential to spring a surprise.
The Lancers also have a new coach this year in Jude Felix, who very well understands the requirements of the game having been a part of the Indian national team's coaching department for quite sometime now.
In Gurjinder Singh and Argentine Gonzalo Peillat, the Lancers boast of a strong drag flick department, while experienced Australian goalie Andrew Charter and India's Harjot Singh will man their citadel.
There isn't much experience in Lancers forwardline and midfield but the likes of Lalit Upadhyay, Mandeep Antil, Australian Russell Ford, Lucas Villa of Argentina, Roshan Minz and Mohammad Amir Khan has the potential to surprise opposition defences.
The Rays, on the other hand, are a new outfit which has tried to retain the core base of players that used to be a part of the Ranchi Rhinos team.
Coached by experienced and Wiley Harendra Singh, the Rays have tough task at hand, the task of living up to the reputation of the previous Ranchi franchise.
On paper, the Rays have a far superior team than the Lancers. In Spain's Francisco Cortes, the Rays have reliable person in front of the goal, while the defence will be under the watchful eyes of Birendra Lakra and South Africa's Justin Reid Ross.
With the likes of Englishmen Ashley Jackson, Barry Middleton, Germany's Moritz Furst and India's Manpreet Singh, the Rays boats of a strong midfield while Australian Trent Mitton,Mandeep Singh and Kiwi Nick Wilson will be in charge of the forwardline.
Lancers coach Felix feels all the six teams in the league are equally matched and whoever plays well on the given day will emerge winners.
"We are excited about the third season of HIL. I don't think any team is extra strong. All the teams have good players nd equally balanced," he said.
The newly-appointed captain of Ranchi Rays Ashley Jackson said their main objective this year is to win the title and they have a strong team to achieve the goal.
"We have a strong team filled with experienced international players and fantastic Indian players. We are here to win the title. Of course no team can will all their matches but our aim is to win as many games as possible to enter the semifinals and then the final. It will be a step by step process," he said.
Meanwhile, title-holders Delhi Waveriders start as favourites to defend their crown. Led by Indian skipper Sardar Singh, the Waveriders will start their campaign against Uttar Pradesh Wizards on Friday at Lucknow.
Studded with celebrated players such as Simon Child, Matt Gohdes, Pirmin Blaak along with India's top players such as Rupinder Pal Singh, Gurbaj Singh and Danish Mujtaba, the Delhi-based team is the top contender for the title.