Ordos (China): Bogged down by controversies in the past few months, the Indian hockey team begins its campaign in the Asian Champions Trophy by taking on hosts China on Saturday, marking the start of its preparations for the upcoming Olympic qualifiers.
It has been a turbulent last six months for Indian hockey, with two federations slugging it out in court and then coming together in a compromise merger, two key players - Sandeep Singh and Sardara Singh - dropping out citing issues with the management and injuries ruling out star players such as Tushar Khandekar, Shivendra Singh and Arjun Halappa.
Like hockey is trying to find its feet among the Mongol population in Ordos, so is new coach Michael Nobbs with the Indian hockey team.
The former Australian midfielder who played with the likes of Ric Charlesworth in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, is a believer in the Indian team and is hoping to give the boys a flying start against the hosts, no mean opponents even though they have lost some momentum in the years after their Korean coach Kim Sang Ryul left the team.
"I hope we win and have a good start," said Nobbs at the training session this evening.
"The other teams are good and have some big players."
The Indian training session wasn`t too hard - a light workout followed by sessions on penalty corners and defence work.
Nobbs knows in the absence of Sandeep and Sardara, the team has its work cut out.
China have a good counter-attacking ability but they are also very good at set pieces.
"I know the defence requires some work. But I am confident that this tournament is a way forward," said Nobbs.
Nobbs is looking to the seniors to show the way forward.
Seniors like Rajpal Singh, Ignace Tirkey, Bharat Chhetri, Gurbaz Singh and Ravi Pal are expected to hold the team together and not let panic set in.
"I really haven`t seen too much of them (Chinese). But if you are playing the Champions Trophy, you have to be a good team and we will be very careful," he said.
India, who finished sixth in the Sultan Azlan Shah, have their tough task cut out as teams like Spain, South Korea, Japan, Canada, and Argentina are still in the fray for Olympic qualification.
"It`s a start. We have to improve a lot and if we win more matches here, we are on our way," said Nobbs.
India may lack firepower without three-four established forwards sitting out because of injuries.
But innovations and not staying too long on the ball may create difficulties for opponents like China and Japan. South Korea, Malaysia and Pakistan have played India too many times to be overawed by the occasion.
Against China, a lot will depend on captain Rajpal, Danish Mujtaba and Sarvanjit Singh to score the goals.
"We have world class forwards. Give it 3-4 months and we will make it work," the coach said.
In Sandeep`s absence, a lot will depend on Rupinder Pal Singh, a gangly 6`4" 20-year-old from Faridkot, Jalandhar.
Rupinder had struck six goals in the Azlan Shah, emerging as the top scorer, and Nobbs rates him highly.
"I know penalty corners win the game. But our preparations were interrupted by the leaving of two players. But as I said, we are making a beginning."
Most of the other teams are in preparation mode. Pakistan have lost most of their seniors in Rehan Butt, Sohail Abbas, Waseem Ahmed and Shakeel Abassi.
The Malaysians have an eye on the Champions Challengers and are also without a few key players.