New Delhi: Australian hockey team captain Mark Knowles feels India's qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics was "crucial" for the longevity of the Hero Hockey India League (HHIL), the third edition of which will begin on Janauary 22 in Bhubaneswar.
Knowles believes, even though it turned out to be a success, the first two editions of the HHIL was just the build up and the real challenge for the organisers from here on is to sustain the league.
"The HHIL is very popular back home in Australia. There are about 21-22 Australian players who are playing in the league, so every match is keenly followed back home. There is a lot of support back home for the league," he said.
"But what was crucial for the league was India's qualification for the Rio Olympics. It was an important part for the sustainability of the league because it means there will be more fan following, more sponsors and support for league," Knowles, who plays for Jaypee Punjab Warriors, told PTI in an interview from Chandigarh.
Knowles, a two-time World Cup winner and also the recipient of this year's International Hockey Federation (FIH) Player of the Year award, has high regards for the present Indian team but feels the Sardar Singh-led side lacks consistency to excel at the higher stage.
"The Indian team is getting better and better with every passing day. In the last couple of years they have become stronger. They won the Asian Games, won silver at the Commonwealth Games and finished fourth at the Champions Trophy," he said.
"But what I feel is that they need to play more consistently, they need to play more compact at the higher level," the 30-year-old Queenslander said.
Knowles, who won the Olympic gold in 2004 and followed it up with two back-to-back bronze medals in 2008 and 2012, feels with the Rio Olympics a year away and most of the teams going through transition periods, 2015 is going to be a year of testing for all and sundry.
"We (Australia) fielded a very young side in the Test series against India and a mixed team in the Champions Trophy. Some of the seniors like me were given rest to manage our injuries. So our transition isn't very big one. We beat Netherlands in the World Cup final 6-1 so any team who can win 6-1 in the World Cup final is definitely a top team," he said.
"But I feel 2015 is all about trial and error for all teams."
Asked about his feelings after winning the FIH Player of the Year award, Knowles said: "It is an awesome feeling to win the award. It is a nice recognition of my hard work with the Australian team in the last six years," he said.
Talking about his team Jaypee Punjab Warriors goal in the upcoming HHIL, Knowles said the Mohali-based franchise is eyeing to improve upon their last year's performance this year.
"It was disappointing to lose in the shoot-out in the final last year. So this year we are determined to make up for that. But it won't be easy because the competition is very hard and it is all about playing well and consistently over the next 12 games," he said.
""Honestly, I can't take a name but looking at the last two year's performances, I feel (defending champions) Delhi Waveriders will be the team to beat."