After a historic bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian men’s hockey team finished last year on a slightly disappointing note when a pumped-up Japanese side stunned Graham Reid’s men 5-3 in the Asian Champions Trophy semifinal in December.

It will hope to start a year that also has the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games in a positive way during its opening FIH Pro League games against South Africa and France in Potchefstroom in February.

While a lot of experienced players come back into the side after Tokyo, there are two who will make their debut in South Africa - Jugraj Singh and Abhishek.

“Jugraj is a versatile player because he plays in the midfield as well as the defense. Also, he is very quick when he dragflicks and scored quite a few goals in the nationals but from what I have seen (in the training camp), I’m quite excited about if we can get some of the speed that he has with his flicks and we get him a little more consistent where he puts them,” said Reid in a media interaction on Friday.

“Abhishek is a striker who likes scoring goals and he has just come from the nationals where he scored quite a lot of goals. Even during our camp, whenever our trial games were on, he was quite prolific there as well. He is strong, young and keen and it is always good to have a bit of new influx into a group and it will be exciting for these guys to make their debut,” he added.

Captain Manpreet Singh has also been impressed by the two newcomers during the training camp.

“Both youngsters have fighting spirit. Abhishek is really good at passing, especially in the D. Similarly, Jugraj is good at dragflicking and has a unique action. He can play in both defense and midfield which provides more options to the coaches,” said Manpreet.

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Reid said that the Pro League games against the Proteas and France will be “very tough games."

He said, “South Africa will have come of their African championships. They’ll be very keen to continue what they started in Tokyo. They beat Germany and gave them a good shock and almost did the same against the Dutch team. We will have some videos to look at the different games that they have played. South Africa are someone who are on the up and coming.”

“It will be interesting to see what sort of team France pick after their junior world cup team did so well in Bhubaneshwar. Obviously, they will have some of the young guys who are now much more experienced. They have got a new coach Fred Soyez who was originally the Spanish coach. He will bring a new influx of tactics for them.

It is going to be two very difficult games, very difficult to tell where they both are at, France will be keen to show the world that they should be in this Pro League in the coming years.”

After a successful outing in Tokyo, the Indian team is one of the top sides in the world which brings more pressure.

However, Manpreet said, “For us, it is not pressure. It is an achievement. We know that teams will now target us and try to beat us all the time and so we have to be always better than them. But this is what we have been playing for all our lives and now we are enjoying this challenge.”