Commonwealth Games 2018: Smiles all around but determination writ large as India wraps up preparatory camp
Fit, cheerful, and ready to go
As the Indian hockey team get set to wrap up their preparatory camp in Bangalore, the mood is upbeat. The drills are gruelling, but the players are equal to the task looking fit, relaxed, and ready for the challenge. The bonhomie in the team is evident as the smiles emanate not just from the ones who will make it to Australia but also from the ones who will not.
Forward Ramandeep Singh goes through the training session with just as much gusto as the rest of his teammates. He is not in the squad bound for the Commonwealth Games but that is hardly evident from his manner. "It happens", he says when asked if he is disappointed. He is confident of making it back to the team and his partner in the forward-line Akashdeep Singh adds, "He is an amazing player, he will be back soon."
The energy is high and even though the mercury shoots up past mid-morning, there is neither a hint of fatigue nor a glum face in the group. If anything, the banter gets noisier.
The boys from Punjab are the loudest of all, and the conversation revolves around how they are progressing with their Kannada in the Bangalore sports complex.
India's drag flick pair, Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet look relaxed and are all smiles as they prepare to display their magic Down Under.
Amidst the din, from the other end of the ground, a couple of eager, young boys walk in. Clad in protective gear, with helmets in hand they are engaged in an intense discussion about how the practice session went. With a smile and with a shake of the hand they introduce themselves.
Two promising custodians: One bound for Gold Coast
"Hi, I am Suraj", one them says. "I am Krishan," adds the other with a nod.
Their humility is appreciable, but the duo does not perhaps realize that their exploits in recent times have ensured that they are well recognized by hockey fans across the country.
In 2017, in an Azlan Shah Cup match against Australia, veteran Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh suffered a knee injury which put him out of action for over half a year.
In the Azlan Shah Cup this year, two young custodians stepped in and made their mark by ensuring that Indian hockey did not suffer too much on account of the veteran's absence. Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak had really big shoes to fill and did so with aplomb.
With Sreejesh being present in the squad bound for Australia, Krishan Pathak will have to wait for his turn to don national colours again, but Suraj Karkera is on his way to Gold Coast.
"Azlan Shah Cup was an important tournament for us," says Suraj Karkera. "We were preparing for the Commonwealth Games. We did not have a lot of experience behind us but we did our best. The results were not in our hands but I felt we could have done much better."
Krishan Pathak adds, "Ramandeep Singh and Sardar Singh helped us a lot in Malaysia.We were never made to feel that we were a weak team or that we had weak links."
When asked about India's first match with Argentina and how the experience was facing up to Gonzalo Peillat's drag flicks, this is what Krishan had to say. "We had worked a lot on blocking his PCs in our camp prior to the tournament. I should have dived to the right once to save his shot. I made small mistakes but I have also learned from them. We will improve in future for sure."
The superman-like save during the opening minutes of the Australia match was simply spectacular. How did he do it?
"He (Daniel Beale) had advanced into the circle and was close to the goal. He had the chance to take a free shot at the goal. It was a 50-50 split second decision. If I had stood my ground, it may have been a goal. I decided to rush towards him. The ball touched my thighs and ricocheted over the post. It happened so fast even I didn't realise then exactly where it had touched. The block happened because I rushed him. If I had kept standing, it would have been a goal for sure."
In the match against Malaysia, India won 5-1 but with India leading 1-0, the Malaysian strikers were launching repeated attacks in the Indian circle and had it not been for Suraj's brilliance in goal, the result might have been different. "It was a really important match for us as winning that match would mean that we would have a chance to play for the 3rd and 4th place or even the final. We had a meeting before the match and a practice session focusing on specific areas. I was totally focused for that match and on the duty which was given to me."
The two youngsters have been together for three years now and do not hesitate to correct each other's flaws when required. They have also received a lot of guidance and inputs from the goalkeeping coaches and from Sreejesh, explains Suraj.
"We have been together (with Krishan) since 2015", he continues. "We have spent a lot of time with our goalkeeping coaches. Bharat Chettri, our coach has been with us for a long time and is with us even now. Sreejesh sir has also given vital inputs. Romeo sir (Romeo James) has been with us since the beginning and taught us the basics of goalkeeping."
How does he feel about the Commonwealth Games and travelling to Australia? "I am confident, but nervousness is needed as well. At my age, playing such a huge tournament is a big thing for me.I am looking forward to putting up a good performance."
As some of the players pack their gear and trudge off the turf, the atmosphere is still as lively as ever.
Although not as boisterous as the rest of the group, Amit Rohidas, India's young defender from Odisha breaks into a smile when approached. "We will do well for sure", he says. "Our preparations have been good."
At the far end of the ground, Chris Ciriello oversees a penalty shootout drill.
Sreejesh looks to be in great form as he makes four successive saves during the drill. The agile moves and quick reflexes are a welcome sign that he has made a remarkable recovery.
After getting acclimatized to the conditions at Gold Coast, it will be time for the team to put into practice the various strategies, combinations, and drills which they assimilated over the last month and a half.
The litmus test for Team India will begin on April 7 at 14:30 local time in a high-pressure opener against arch-rivals Pakistan.