Nobbs to pick best 18 players for Oly qualifier from SA series

New Delhi: Indian men`s hockey team chief coach Michael Nobbs on Sunday said the upcoming five-match Test series against South Africa is "extremely important" as it will provide him the platform to handpick the best 18 players of the country for next month`s London Olympic qualifiers.

With eight-time champions India failing to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Nobbs is aware of the enormous task he has undertaken and so he is eyeing the series against South Africa to try out his strategies ahead of the Olympic qualifiers to be held here from February 18-26.

"We are eyeing this series as trials to pick the team for the Olympic qualifying tournament. We will try out different combinations, different teams and pick the best team," the Australian told reporters in the pre-match press conference ahead of the first Test against South Africa on Monday.

"This series is extremely important for us because we want to pick the best 18 players for the qualifiers," Nobbs added.

"Everyone is going to get an opportunity in the series against South Africa. We will try out lots of new things in this series."

Asked whether performances in the five-Test series would be the sole criteria for securing a place in the team for the Olympic qualifiers, Nobbs said, "Not necessarily but probably."

Citing the example of Gurbaz Singh, who has been ruled out for the upcoming Test series due to a knee injury which he sustained during the preparatory camp, the coach said the midfielder is too good a player to be ignored if he is fit.

"Gurbaz has got a second degree strain and he needs 3 weeks rest. But I told him whenever he is fit I will bring him. He is a class player," Nobbs said.

He also stressed on the need to tighten up India`s defensive line in the series, which has taken a beating under pressure on numerous occasions in the recent past.

"We have changed our style to attacking hockey but when we play attacking hockey it also exposes our defence. It stretches our defence. We have to fix this problem but it will take some time," Nobbs said.

In the world rankings, India (10th) might be placed ahead of South Africa (12th), but Nobbs said the Proteas are too good side to be judged by numbers.

"South Africa are very good side. They have a quality team and they have shown that during the Champions Challenge tournament," he insisted.

"They will also try to hone their skills and pick the best team for their Olympic qualifiers."

Meanwhile, South Africa captain Austin Martin has termed as "frustrating" their National Olympic Committee`s decision to withdraw their direct entry from London Olympics even after emerging as champions in the African contingent.

South Africa defeated Egypt 1-0 in the African nations tournament to qualify for the London Games, but the South African Olympic Committee feels their Continental championship is of below standard, and instead asked the team to go through the qualifiers.

"It was frustrating because I thought we have done enough (to play in the Olympics). But it is still very much in our hands. I hope we can do it again," was Smith`s reply when asked about the decision of his Olympic committee.

"I agree the competition in Africa is not that strong but it is improving. To beat Egypt in the final was difficult and we give full value to our qualification but unfortunately our Olympic committee things differently."

Smith said the Test series against India is of immense significance for the visitors as they are also eying the matches to prepare for their Olympic qualification tournament to be held Kakamigahara, Japan from April 25 to May 6.

South Africa team`s head coach Gregg Clark also agreed with his skipper and said the series would be a great opportunity for him to test his bench strength.

"We are taking the series very seriously. We still need to qualify for the Olympics and it will be an excellent preparation for us," he said.

Asked whether the tourists are looking at the series as a revenge rubber as it was India who beat them in the semi-final of the Champions Challenge I tournament in Johannesburg, Clark said, "We don`t see it that way, but obviously there is a lot at stake for both the teams."

Interestingly, the deafeat in the semi-final of the Champions Challenge hurt the Proteas badly as it cost them their direct entry in the London Olympics as per the criteria set by the South African Olympic Committee.

Meanwhile, India captain Bharat Chetri has lashed out at various state governments for not fulfiling their promise of rewarding the national hockey team with cash incentives following their title triumph in the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy in Ordos, China last year.

Apart from the Sports Ministry, the Punjab government had announced a cash reward of Rs 25 lakh for the winning team.

The Maharashtra government also announced Rs 10 lakh reward for Yuvraj Walmiki, who hails from the state, and offered him a job.

But Chetri said while they have received monetary reward from the ministry, the state governments have still not kept their promise.

"We have still not got our incentives announced by various state governments for winning the Asian Champions Trophy. Such kind of behaviour demotivates a player," Chetri said.

"The ministry gave us the incentive within 10 days. But four months have passed and the state governments have still not given us anything. I feel sometimes they announce such rewards for publicity," he added.