BHUBANESWAR: The Indian colts would draw inspiration from their Olympic bronze medal-winning seniors when they begin their title defence at the Junior Hockey World Cup with a clash against France, here on Wednesday.
Indian men's senior side created history at the Tokyo Olympics by claiming a bronze medal after 41 years. The junior side would look to wrap up the successful 2021 season by retaining the World Cup title, which would be its third.
The team first won the World Cup title in 2001 in Australia before reclaiming the crown in the last edition of the event in 2016 in Lucknow.
The junior hockey World Cup is considered a stepping stone for aspiring youngsters to play the game at the senior level as nine players from the 2016 squad represented India at the Tokyo Games. And many members of the Vivek Sagar Prasad-led Indian team would look to showcase their potential and impress upon the national selectors for a place in the senior side.
Getting the opportunity to stay, train and play matches against the senior side ahead of the event has been a blessing for the juniors.
Besides seniors like Manpreet Singh and PR Sreejesh, India chief coach Graham Reid has been working relentlessly with the Indian junior side, being coached by veteran BJ Kariappa.
In Arjuna awardee Prasad, the hosts will be led by someone who has already played the game at the highest level as he was part of the Olympic bronze-winning side.
Prasad will be assisted by star drag-flicker Sanjay as his deputy.
"Our team became the champions in 2016 and now our aim is to continue to perform in a similar manner," Prasad said.
Chief coach Reid said the opportunity to train along side senior side will certainly benefit the juniors.
"While we did not have overseas competition, the juniors played some practice games against the senior team in Bhubaneswar, which were quite valuable. Since arriving in Bhubaneswar, we have been getting used to the stadium. It's good that we are getting to train here before we start," Reid said.
India is placed in Pool B in the 16-team competition alongside France, Canada and Poland and is the overwhelming favourite to top the pool.
Pool A consists of European heavyweights Belgium, Malaysia, Chile and South Africa, while the Netherlands, Spain, Korea and the USA are in Pool C.
Pool D will see Germany, Pakistan, Egypt and Argentina face off against each other.
The top two teams from each pool will qualify for the quarterfinals.
India is one of the tournament favourites alongside Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, especially after the pullout of Australia and England due to COVID-related travel restrictions.
Five countries have traditionally dominated the tournament with Germany being the most successful team with six titles, followed by India (twice).
Argentina, Australia and Pakistan have won the tournament once each.
Reid feels a mixture of "flexibility and flair" gives India the best opportunity to defend the title.
"We have chosen a group of 20 players, a team of 18, and two alternate players, who we believe give us the best chance of defending our title as Junior World Cup champions. It is a well-balanced side with a lot of flexibility and flare. The key to these guys performing on the big stage will be to trust in each other and trust in their preparation," the Australian said.
After France, India will play Canada and Poland on November 25 and 27 respectively.
All matches will be held inside a bio-bubble without spectators at the Kalinga Stadium.
In other matches on the opening day, Belgium will play South Africa, Malaysia will face Chile, Germany will take on Pakistan and Canada will lock horns against Poland.