Weeks after the Indian men’s hockey team ended a 41-year wait to win a historic bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year, few senior players bid their farewell to the sport.
While star dragflicker Rupinder Pal Singh and defender Birendra Lakra announced their retirements to make way for youngsters, forward SV Sunil, who was not a part of the Tokyo squad, made himself unavailable for the 11-a-side format.
In their absence, the onus will be on the likes of captain Manpreet Singh, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh and dragflicker Harmanpreet Singh to take the leadership roles as the team starts a jam-packed 2022, featuring the Asian and Commonwealth Games, with its opening FIH Pro League games against South Africa and France in Potchefstroom in February.
“It is never easy being the coach and have legends leave the group and make decisions that are required. My effort has been to build a deeper squad and give as many opportunities as possible to as many players and that was also part of the strength of this group before Tokyo,” said head coach Graham Reid in a media interaction on Friday.
While the team welcomes two newcomers, Jugraj Singh and Abhishek, it will be glad to have the services of veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh between the sticks who returns to the side after the Olympics.
Talking about Sreejesh, Reid said, “He has had a long break from international sport but you don’t get to play as long for your country as he has without being open to new ideas and changes and development and continual improvement."
"These guys that hang around and are in these teams and get (awards like) world’s best player is no accident. They are constantly wanting to get better. I think that is what he brings to the group and while he can still play as well as what he does, it is a great thing for us.”
Captain Manpreet has been a vital cog in Reid’s strategies, not only as a leader but also as a player.
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In April last year, against the then reigning Olympic champion Argentina in a Pro League tie, India was 1-2 down with less than a minute to go when Manpreet raced through the Argentine defenders eventually winning a penalty corner which led to the equaliser. India won that match 3-2 in a shoot-out.
While Manpreet won the penalty corner in that match, it was Harmanpreet Singh who converted it into the equaliser.
Reid said, “Whenever you see Manpreet play, he brings that competitive streak to every game that we play," Reid said, talking about Manpreet.
"If we are having a competition of how many goals we can get in 30 seconds, he is not necessarily a striker and a goal-scorer but he will do whatever he can to win that competition. He is more of a leader by example when you look on the pitch," he added.
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