Europe tour a shot in the arm for Indian men's hockey team

The team had a four-game Europe tour in late February, and its match against Germany on February 28 was the first time the players faced off against a team outside its own group in 370 days.

“The best thing was getting to enjoy the rhythm of the game and playing two strong teams. They both have different styles and gave us a good, tough challenge so we learnt quite a lot on the tour,” said goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh.   -  Special Arrangement

Sports, they say, is all about the moment. The ones that change history, or create one; the ones that remain for eternity; the ones that make or break the course of a game, a match, a career. The Indian men’s hockey team spent 31,968,000 moments before experiencing what, for most of them, is the only way of life ever known — the feel of the turf under the feet and a stick in hand, in foreign lands, against real competition.

The Indian team had a four-game Europe tour in late February, and its match against Germany on February 28 was the first time the players faced off against a team outside its own group in 370 days. The result — a 6-1 demolition of the Germans — was impressive and — considering that the players had been through repeated rounds of testing and quarantine — a confidence booster on their road to Tokyo.

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“I’m pretty happy with the performance. I’m very happy with the way the tour was from a point of view of getting some international competition. That was really important,” admitted coach Graham Reid, one of the rare guys who stayed put in the country through the peak of the pandemic last year, guiding the boys during camps and even when they got a break to go home.

Goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh, standing in for skipper Manpreet Singh who withdrew for personal reasons, said getting to enjoy the rhythm of a competitive game after so long was refreshing. “The best thing was getting to enjoy the rhythm of the game and playing two strong teams. They both have different styles and gave us a good, tough challenge so we learnt quite a lot on the tour,” he said.

No easy passage

The doubts were there even before the team departed. Twice before had the men’s team’s attempts to begin competitions already been thwarted this year due to Covid-related postponements and cancellations, and till the moment they took off, the players weren’t certain if they were actually going to get some real competition under their belt.

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After reaching Germany, the players had to go through the protocols. “Reaching there was tough, starting with the test we had to take even before being cleared to travel. Once we reached there, we had to be in our rooms only, followed by another round of testing the next day before being allowed out. Plus, there was testing before every match day and honestly that was the toughest part because after a point, so many tests become irritating, but you cannot do anything about it. Then, the bubble meant you are confined to a separate floor and also have a separate dining hall, so there is no access to other, non-team people,” explained Sreejesh.

Coach Graham Reid said the experience will be critical in the team’s lead-up to the Olympics.   -  Special Arrangement

 

The good thing, he added, was that the extensive measures made it easier on the mind, especially given the fact that half-a-dozen Indian players had tested positive last year when they returned to camp after a break. “Even a single player testing positive would have meant a tough quarantine for all of us and even the chance of no matches. So, irritating as it is, the repeated testing and bubble make you relax mentally about your own safety. Plus, it gives you enough time to introspect, to find yourself,” he said.

To stay unbeaten against two tough teams in Europe under these circumstances was a natural morale-booster for both the team and the coach. As Reid explained, “Our performance against Germany was mixed. It was pretty good beating them 6-1, but we let too many penalty corners in. The second game saw better defensive efforts from us. The third against Great Britain was okay. But the last game (which India won 3-2) was first-class. We led most of the game, came back twice from a stalemate, scored in the last few minutes, which is a really important thing to get over.”

The experience, he feels, will be critical in the team’s lead-up to the Olympics, starting with the Pro League games against Argentina next month in what would be the actual resumption of official competition for the Indian side. “I believe the next few months are going to be busy for us with competition and some training in between where we will work on the things we need to. The Olympic year has well and truly started now for us and we need to accelerate our learnings,” Reid said.

The tough road ahead

Not everything’s perfect, though. Both the coach and the players admit there is a lot more to do before they can start thinking of challenging for a medal in Tokyo. But the start has been positive and they hope to continue the momentum, working out the niggles and shoring up the strengths in the process.

“We are now looking forward to the Pro League. This tour has given us sufficient confidence and now we know where we need to improve or put more focus on during training. This was important because playing against each other in camps will never be as tough as this. There, everyone knows one another’s strengths and style of play. But when you play against an international team, you need to think on your feet and step up to the game. But the tour has told us when and how we stumble — specially how to plan and adjust when the opposition changes tactics or plays defensive,” Sreejesh said.

Getting to play was level one of the Tokyo challenge for the Indian men’s team, and it clearly has passed it with distinction.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Reid too pointed out certain areas to work on. “The first thing that requires attention is making sure we tighten our defence. We allow them (opponents) to come back in the middle (of a game) a bit too much. We are starting to make some ground on that. The last match was a little better. We are getting into the 25-yard mark a lot, but we need to get better returns from our entries, convert them into circle entries, goal shots and penalty corners. We have tried some different things here in Europe,” he said.

Getting to play was level one of the Tokyo challenge for the team, and it clearly has passed it with distinction. But the players are aware that there is more to come. India is currently fifth on the Pro League table, and where it finishes in the months ahead will give a clearer idea on where the team will stand in Tokyo. For now, it’s back to business in Bengaluru.