Fresh off India’s bronze medal in Tokyo, coach Graham Reid was optimistic about where he can take the men’s team. Reid’s men had hoisted the Indian colours at the Olympic hockey podium for the first time in 41 years, rekindling the romance for the game in the country.
“We have not seen the best of this team yet,” said the Aussie, as he quickly began charting plans to build on the Tokyo success.
The next Olympic cycle is underway and all eyes will be on what the senior team can achieve in the upcoming 12-months that feature the Asian Games and a home World Cup.
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While Rupinder Pal Singh, Birendra Lakra and S.V. Sunil announced their retirements post the Olympics, Reid has kept the nucleus of the Olympic squad intact with his selections indicating an eye on the future. He has called 32 players so far for the Asian Champions Trophy and the FIH Pro League with 16 of the 19, who travelled to Tokyo, featuring heavily.
The midfield has fairly remained the same with new inclusions seen in forward and defence. Harmanpreet Singh, Amit Rohidas, Varun Kumar and Surender Kumar still form the first choice defence, with Jugraj Singh, Jarmanpreet Singh, Mandeep Mor, Dipsan Tirkey and Nilam Sanjeep providing support. In the attack, Abhishek, Shilanand Lakra and Sukhjeet Singh are the new faces.
Reid also hasn’t integrated many names from the junior pool since the team’s fourth-place finish in the Junior World Cup in Bhubaneswar, late last year. Only two players have made the cut, from which, Vivek Sagar Prasad, has played for the senior team since 2018.
The most notable change has been the removal of the captaincy armband from inspirational midfielder Manpreet Singh, who has had an inconsistent run and handing it to Rohidas. Curiously, there has been no explanation from the coach on that front.
The rookies and fringe players have been given opportunities but with mixed results. A strong Indian team came up short against South Korea and Japan in the Champions Trophy, where it finished third. In the Pro League, India suffered defeats to France (away), Spain (home) and Argentina (penalty shootout), but is placed top of the league standings, at the end of its home leg, having played more games.
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Indian hockey legends Vasudevan Baskaran and M.M. Somaya don’t want to look at the points table as the real indicator of how this group is shaping up. They want the team to keenly focus on the Asian Games, where a gold medal can secure qualification for the Paris Olympics.
Baskaran, who led India to the 1980 Olympic gold, feels, “this team will carry on till the Asian Games and it’s definitely not the 2024 Olympics team. I think he might start weeding out some senior players after the Asian Games. He won’t make many changes going into the Asian Games with the [Olympic] qualification at stake.”
He also doesn’t foresee any surprise inclusions from the Commonwealth Games (CWG) squad, where India is sending an 'A' team to compete, featuring Rupinder, Birender and Sunil, all of whom reversed their retirement decisions last month.
“One good thing is Sardar Singh coaching the team. I am not sure if the team can feature in the medal bracket at the CWG. I don’t think the team has the needed punch. Those who made their retirement, [the decision] was accepted and it was taken in a good way. Coming back to play in the development team, I am not sure how motivated they will be. My serious thought is that India is not pining for a medal at the CWG, and they are there only to participate. If it were up to me, I would have sent more players from the first team to the CWG, because they get to play better games than at the Asian Games. Reid already has a cream of 25 players to pick from, I don’t think he is going to look for players from the CWG group,” says Baskaran.
Analysing the personnel changes in the last six months, Somaya, Baskaran's teammate and three-time Olympian, says: “Some of the new players, who have come in, have played well. I am not yet convinced by the defence, including the goalkeepers. In defence, barring the old guard, like Harmanpreet [Singh], the new guys do not seem ready. The forward line has been impressive, Sukhjeet, Shilanand and Abhishek, after being given a few rounds of exposure, are shaping up quite well. The players tried in defence have not risen to the task. In deep defence and goalkeeping, we need more exposure, and it is an area of concern.”
In the Pro League, while India has plundered in 54 goals, it has let in 30, against teams that are rebuilding framework. Of the 54, 24 are field goals where the younger talent Abhishek, Sukhjeet and Shilanand have contributed with their flair and technical ability. But after scoring 16 field goals in the opening four games against France and South Africa, openings have been hard to come by against defences that have sat back deep in a counter-attacking approach.
Harmanpreet has taken over as the primary drag-flicker role and is the leading scorer in the ongoing Pro League with 16 strikes, with 11 converted from penalty corners. But India’s penalty corner routines have often lacked variety. “There should be more than one guy for penalty corners. Jugraj (Singh) and Varun (Kumar) are performing in patches and aren’t yet a strong number two as drag-flicker, which the previous team had. The previous team had three strong candidates for those scenarios,” says Somaya.
Through the course of the Pro League, India has been guilty of conceding soft goals, much to the chagrin of Reid. Control has been hard to come by in the games against France, Spain, Argentina and England, but it finished strongly in the final home tie against an inexperienced German team.
Somaya stresses the need for having an outlet in central midfield and a strong defensive unit.
“In central midfield, the linkmen of Hardik [Singh] and Manpreet or Vivek Prasad, if they are packed hard by the opposition, there is no guile in the rest of midfield to create openings or passes for the forward line. We need to think of a way around it, maybe a couple of wing halves, who can receive the ball from the deep defence and have the guile and vision to create.
“Defence is not a one-man tackling art. It’s teamwork. The previous team took six-seven years to create the chemistry they had. The understanding in defence should come in an impulsive way. The team should work in unison. If they can plug these areas, they can be more effective. Some of the goals we have conceded, especially from penalty corners, have been soft goals,” says the three-time Olympian.
India has four matches left at the home of Olympic champion Belgium and the fourth-ranked Netherlands, and these games could prove to be its biggest test in the Pro League, before the Asian Games.
India has sparked while attacking, but performances have been far from complete. While India will enter the Asian Games, the next big assignment on the horizon, as the favourite, it won’t be an easy outing with Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Pakistan posing a strong threat.
If India, which last won gold at the Asiad in 2014, wants to claim the top spot, Reid will have to conjure the best version of this side that is still a work in progress.