The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Athens berth not easy: Saini

Calcutta: Last month’s Asia Cup triumph in Kuala Lumpur has given hockey fans a fresh lease of life. The disappointment of the Champions Trophy is suddenly a thing of the past and the eternal optimists have started dreaming of an Olympic medal.

But, as Baljit Singh Saini stressed this evening, there is a major hurdle to be crossed before the Indian team even earns the right to compete at next year’s Athens Games. “Qualifying for the Olympics can’t be taken for granted… it will be a tough tournament, believe me,” Saini said after being felicitated by the Bengal Hockey Association in conjunction with the Calcutta Motor Dealers Association.

Saini, a member of the maiden Asia Cup gold-winning squad, is on a rare visit to his hometown, capitalising on the ‘rest’ he and two other seniors (Dhanraj Pillay and Baljit Singh Dhillon) have been given during the Afro-Asian Games campaign.

“Quite a few tough teams will be in the fray at the Olympic qualifiers (in Madrid next March). The Netherlands, Pakistan, Germany, Spain and Malaysia… We have to be at our best,” he observed.

Saini, who will be leaving for his adopted home Jalandhar on Tuesday, is looking forward to the home series versus the Dutch and the Azlan Shah meet early next year. “Those two assignments will serve as the lead-up to the pre-Olympic tourney. Then, of course, we’ll have a long camp before leaving for Madrid,” said Saini.

The last conditioning camp, prior to the Champions Trophy, was the subject of a hot controversy. Many experts felt having the camp in Lucknow proved to be counter-productive because of the hot and humid conditions there.

“The heat was a bit of a problem, but all the facilities provided in Lucknow were excellent,” said Saini. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t have our next camp there again”, he added.

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