When it was inaugurated, the Birsa Munda Stadium in Rourkela was to be the symbol of India’s might in world hockey. Instead, the Olympic bronze medallists return to this imposing new arena on Friday with punctured confidence and shattered egos, to pick up the pieces from a bruising World Cup.
Almost half of the players from that botched-up campaign are out – for now, at least. So is coach Graham Reid, who – as Hockey India euphemistically put it – ‘resigned’ a day after the World Cup ended. And the aura around the team that was making a legit claim of being among the top four of the world has evaporated, too.
In this gloomy backdrop, India’s road to Paris Olympics, with the Hangzhou Asian Games acting as a crucial pit stop, begins with a painfully familiar trope: dollops of uncertainty, both in the playing group as well as the coaching staff.
“There are many moments in life which teach you a lesson. This was one of them,” captain Harmanpreet Singh said, still reeling. The disappointment was more pronounced in the voice of his deputy, Hardik Singh. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in a World Cup so it was hard to take,” Hardik said. “But now, we are hopeful that we will get back on track during these matches, with an eye on the Asian Games.”
Over the next five days, India will face world champions Germany and their perennial nemesis Australia twice each in the FIH Pro League. Most countries, including India, have treated the Pro League as a series of glorified exhibition matches. As teams press the reset button after the end of the World Cup cycle and look towards the Olympics, there’s little to suggest otherwise heading into the new season of the Pro League.
It’ll be an exercise in futility to read too much into the results of these games. However, the tournament that lacks overall context assumes some significance for the Indians. “It’s an opportunity for each player,” Harmanpreet said.
After the mini-series against world hockey’s two heavyweights, it is expected that the 30-odd-member core group will be reshuffled once the new chief coach, Craig Fulton, takes over from the interim coach David John. While the National Championships is where the discards and hopefuls are trying to push their case for inclusion in the core group, the four matches will provide veterans like PR Sreejesh and Manpreet Singh a chance to show Fulton he can still count on them. Likewise, for young players like drag-flicker Jugraj Singh from Attari, crafty midfielder Vishnukant Singh and young forward S Karthi, these games are an opportunity to gatecrash into the squad that’s yearning for freshness rather than being on the fringes.
The selectors have chosen to go with the tried-and-tested method of combining youth with experience but how India control certain sections of the match will be of particular interest. In the penalty corners, Jugraj will give India a second option, an area in which the team struggled during the World Cup after the go-to drag-flicker Harmanpreet endured his leanest spell since making his international debut.
Former captain Manpreet has been drafted in the defence to support his successor Harmanpreet while in the midfield, the wristy Vishnukant will hope to combine with Vivek Sagar Prasad and Rabichandra Moirangthem, the trio that has been playing together since the junior team days. There will be an increased focus on Hardik, too, given that he was India’s best player in the World Cup until he injured his hamstring and got ruled out of the tournament. Making his comeback, if Hardik can maintain his skill and fitness levels, India’s attack will gain a lot more potency.
Then again, fitness is one aspect for which the entire team will be under the microscope. In nearly all matches they played in the World Cup, India were far from their best physical shape. Under physical trainer Mitch Pemberton, India lost at least half a yard of their pace. The team started matches slowly and was unable to maintain the same energy levels in all four quarters.
In the aftermath of the World Cup, Hockey India parted ways with Pemberton and while it’ll be foolhardy to expect instant results, one of Fulton’s key priorities will be to ensure players return to their peak fitness, which was one of the reasons they could finish on the Olympic podium in testing weather conditions.
That Tokyo summer seems a long time ago now. This is a team in need of rebuilding after a disaster. And the process begins in Rourkela.
In & Out
Eight players who were a part of the World Cup squad have been dropped or rested for the Pro League matches against Australia and Germany. With India looking to rebuild after a failed campaign, here’s a lowdown on the players who have managed to retain their spots and those who have been left out or called up.
Retaining place: PR Sreejesh
Out: Krishan Bahadur Pathak
Pathak has taken a leave for his marriage and is expected to return to the side after the tournament, most likely in place of Pawan given that Sreejesh still adds a lot of value to the team.
Retaining place: Harmanpreet Singh (Captain), Nilam Sanjeep Xess, Jarmanpreet Singh, Manpreet Singh
In: Sumit, Manjeet, Jugraj Singh
Out: Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas
Jugraj’s inclusion will give India another drag-flicking option, which the team lacked during the World Cup. Former captain Manpreet has been drafted as a defender instead of his usual position in the midfield.
Retaining place: Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Shamsher Singh, Raj Kumar Pal
In: Rabichandra Moirangthem, Vishnukant Singh, Dilpreet Singh
Out: Nilakanta Sharma, Akashdeep Singh
With the team desperately needing freshness and creativity in the midfield, this will be a chance for young guns Rabichandra and Vishnukant, who is known for his stick skills and fast wrists.
Retaining place: Sukhjeet Singh, Abhishek
In: Gurjant Singh, S Karthi
Out: Lalit Upadhyay, Mandeep Singh
With the forward line lacking sharpness, it isn’t surprising to see the selectors opting to drop Lalit and Mandeep, who had average outings at the World Cup and give young S Karthi a chance. Gurjant gets another opportunity to prove his worth.
PRO LEAGUE MATCH SCHEDULE
March 10: vs Germany
March 12: vs Australia
March 13: vs Germany
March 15: vs Australia
All matches live on Star Sports Network and Fancode, 7 pm onwards