Practice-less India face Belgium in Champions Challenge opener
Johannesburg: Forced to play the event after losing out on an automatic spot in next year`s Champions Trophy hockey tournament, erstwhile champions India would be desperate to open their Champions Challenge campaign on a perfect note against a tricky Belgium on Saturday.
As hosts, earlier India were to feature in the eight-nation Champions Trophy, before the tournament was shifted to New Zealand by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) citing problems with the governance of the sport in the country amidst the ongoing rift between two national bodies -- Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation.
New Zealand thus got the hosts slot in the Champions Trophy in place of India, who were drawn in the second-rung Champions Challenge tournament, whose winner would get an automatic qualification to the next year`s elite FIH tournament.
But since landing here four days ago, all is not going well for the Indians as they go into their tournament opener without any practice game, courtesy inclement weather.
Inclement weather and heavy showers over the past two evenings denied India an opportunity to even begin their two warm-up games against Malaysia and Canada.
The practice match against Malaysia on Wednesday was called off due to lightening and match against Canada could not take place because of heavy water logging on the pitch.
"It`s disappointing, but no team would want to risk injury in such conditions." said India coach Michael Nobbs.
If that was not enough, two Indian players -- drag-flicker V Raghunath and striker Sarvanjit Singh - were down with altitude sickness, which is common for overseas players due to Johannesburg`s high-altitude of over 5,800 feet above sea level.
"These two are feeling altitude sickness right now, but will get over that in a few days." Nobbs said.
After Argentina, which is placed at number eight spot in the FIH rankings, India (10) are the second highest ranked team in the eight-nation tournament.
The Indians are followed by Canada (11th), Belgium (12th), hosts South Africa (13th), Malaysia (14th), Japan (15th) and Poland (19th).
But rankings will hardly be of any significance when the Indian square off against Belgium, who are eyeing their maiden entry into the Champions Trophy.
Belgium have brought a strong squad that quite resembles the team which finished ahead of Spain in the European Cup.
Belgium were the surprise qualifiers from the European Cup, finishing fourth after losing the bronze medal play-off match to Britain, but edging out multiple Olympic medalists Spain, who failed to make the semifinals in the continental event.
But the group competition in the tournament will not have much significance as all eight teams will get to play the quarterfinals, reducing the preliminary round to a mere academic exercise.
For India, Belgium and hosts South Africa will be their main challengers in Pool A, which also features Poland.