"Every player in the team can play in any position," says Harendra Singh after World Cup squad announced
It has been just over six months since Harendra Singh was entrusted with the responsibility of handling what is perhaps the most high-pressure job in the world of hockey - that of coaching the senior Indian men's team.
An arduous task lay ahead for India's only FIH-certified coach with the Champions Trophy, Asian Games, and World Cup lined up within the space of half a year.
The question uppermost in the minds of hockey fans was - what could an Indian as guide and mentor deliver that eight foreigners couldn't?
It was a near-perfect start for Harendra, as India earned a Champions Trophy silver medal for only the second time in history but one bad day at the office in the Asian Games semifinal tarnished what has otherwise been a relatively consistent run.
"We need to convert every circle entry into a shot at goal"
Following the loss to Malaysia at Jakarta, all eyes were on Muscat where India took on the Asian Games silver-medalists who were armed with a new coach in the form of the redoubtable Roelant Oltmans.
A scrappy goalless draw was perhaps not the ideal result for the Indians and the head coach opined that his team could have done better and needs to be more astute when it comes to handling opposition strategies.
"The way I analyze the performance of a team is by observing how well the defensive structure has been maintained for the entire duration of the match, and also by the number of shots on goal after penetrating the striking circle."
"We were successful in penetrating the Malaysian circle (with 22 circle entries) but could not convert the same into goals as the Malaysians played a very defensive game."
"We need to work more towards countering the surprise tactics adopted by the opposition teams and most importantly convert every circle entry into an attempt at goal."
Harendra's boys may well run into Malaysia for the third time in four months in an early World Cup crossover, but more importantly, how well is India prepared to take on the best hockey playing nations on earth?
Sixteen teams will be in action at Bhubaneswar - only once before has there ever been a sixteen-team World Cup.
Back in 2002 at Malaysia, the Indians finished tenth out of sixteen teams. Before the Kuala Lumpur edition, and since, a twelve-nation tournament has been the norm, with the Indians finishing eleventh in 2006 and ninth in 2014. The best India have done at a World Cup, in the 21st century, is to finish eighth at home at Delhi in 2010.
Can Harendra's team do better with a home advantage this time around?
As far as the squad is concerned, the suspense is finally over - after a series of trials and tribulations which commenced with the Four-Nations Tournament in New Zealand in January, the final eighteen for the biggest tournament of the year has been finally announced.
Incidentally, Varun Kumar is the only Indian player to have been selected in every major tournament this year and will be in action at Bhubaneswar too.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, chief coach Harendra Singh outlines the factors which influenced the tough selection process, sheds light on a few surprise exclusions, and asserts quite ardently that the selectors have knitted together the best-available unit under the prevailing circumstances.
"Ramandeep still on injury list - Sunil needs more time to recover"
The Indian forward line seems rather bereft of experience. It was always going to be a race against time for Ramandeep Singh who took the field for the second half of the Champions Trophy opener against Pakistan in spite of experiencing significant pain in the first.
The ever-dependable Ramandeep, who was making a comeback at Breda, may well rue his heroics at the time, as the hosts will, undoubtedly, miss his remarkable poaching qualities in the striking circle at Bhubaneswar.
The Indians will also have to find a way to make up for the absence of their speediest and seniormost man up front. The veteran from Sowmarpet, SV Sunil finds his name on the injury list instead of the final squad thus complicating matters for the team as Harendra pointed out.
"Ramandeep is still on the injury list. Sunil, has, unfortunately, picked up an injury too and will take a little more time to recover. We cannot take a chance and pick him for a tournament as vital as the World Cup."
"Vivek misses out - Hardik can attack, defend, and be a midfielder too"
Vivek Sagar's outstanding and unmistakable talent propelled him to the senior ranks in the Four-Nations tournament at the beginning of the year. The teenager may have looked a wee bit out of place at Gold Coast but silenced his critics with solid performances in the Champions Trophy and Asian Games.
Just when it looked like the young midfielder was on the verge of cementing his position in the national team, his place has been taken by yet another prodigy - Hardik Singh.
Vivek was part of the team which won the silver at the Hockey 5's event of the Youth Olympics last month but it was Hardik who was at Muscat and displayed admirable maturity for a 20-year-old against the top teams of Asia.
He defended tenaciously and was in the thick of the action in opposition territory as well, thus making a strong case for himself. Astoundingly, Hardik who made his senior debut in the Asian Champions Trophy last month finds himself in the Indian World Cup squad.
The Indian coach was emphatic that leaving Vivek out was not easy.
"It was really difficult to choose between Vivek Sagar and Hardik Singh. What clinched the issue in Hardik's favour was the fact that he possesses great skills in attack and in defence - he is a good midfielder too."
"Vivek is formidable as an attacker but not as good as Hardik when it comes to defending. Unfortunately, we can select only eighteen players so Vivek misses out for the World Cup."
Rupinder Pal Singh has failed to match his previous stellar performances this year. The towering defender was rested for the Champions Trophy but was in action at Jakarta. He was then promptly dropped again for the Asian Champions Trophy just as fellow defender Amit Rohidas was.
Amit, however, will be back at Bhubaneswar alongside his Odisha teammate Birendra Lakra who has made it to the team post-rehab but Harendra explained why "Bobby" failed to make the cut.
"Current form and fitness determined which players made it to the squad. It was extremely difficult but based on the above criteria and a player's effectiveness as a part of the overall strategy of the team, we have selected six defenders who we believe will be best suited for the tournament."
Rupinder's absence means that India will employ a three-man battery for penalty corners comprising Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, and Amit Rohidas. and Harendra feels that his drag-flickers are on the right track.
"We have used indirect PC routines successfully"
"The running patterns of the players defending the PCs and the strengths and weaknesses of opposition goalkeepers have to be taken into consideration as far as short corners are concerned. The strategy, of course, is determined by watching videos of the opposition teams.
"We have used indirect PC routines successfully (in the Asian Champions Trophy), and will continue to use a blend of direct hits and variations in the World Cup also. I am confident that we will continue to be just as effective at Bhubaneswar with regard to PC conversions," Harendra added.
A multiskilled unit is the strength of the team says Harendra explaining how his side shaped up in the Asian Champions Trophy.
"Any player in this team can play in any position. At Muscat, all the players attacked and defended as well. Akashdeep was playing in a withdrawn position. Lalit played in the midfield and also up front. Hardik attacked when required, and the players advanced from both flanks."
Harmanpreet, Varun, Simranjeet, Mandeep, Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma, and goalkeeper Krishan Pathak were part of the Junior World Cup squad which the Indians won in 2016 when Harendra Singh was the coach.
How significant will it be to have the junior gold-medalists on board?
"It is a huge positive. They have played under pressure on the big stage and know what it takes to win a World Cup," says Harendra.
The Indian Team for the World Cup
Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Krishan Bahadur Pathak.
Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra, Varun Kumar, Kothajit Singh Khadangbam, Surender Kumar, Amit Rohidas.
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh (captain), Chinglensana Singh Kangujam (vice-captain), Nilakanta Sharma, Hardik Singh, Sumit.
Forwards: Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Simranjeet Singh.