Indian men’s hockey team’s performance in this year’s FIH Pro League for men has been way above expectations and seems to suggest a quantum leap in its ability. The first three teams that India has faced have been the three best sides in the world. Far above expectations, the Indian team under FIH Player of the Year Manpreet Singh, has not only competed but has even defeated these team.
So, how good have India been in these six matches so far? Have they proven themselves to be good enough for the fans to realistically hope for a medal from them later this year in Tokyo Olympics? For that, we have to look closely at the different aspects of their performance.
#1 Variety in play
One of the most impressive things about Indian team’s performance so far in this tournament has been their flexibility. Against Belgium, they focused on their defence and never allowed any free space to the World Champions in the circle. Known for their aggressive brand of hockey, it was a revelation to see the team do so well in keeping the Belgian forwards at bay.
However, against Australia, the team played a more open game. This, though, almost backfired as the Australian forwards often found themselves unmarked in Indian circle with large open spaces. It contributed to Indian team’s inability to register a victory against them.
Coach Graham Reid has talked about his preference for an aggressive brand of hockey where his midfield and forwards keep the opposing team under pressure. However, the team management has also paid due attention to defence and a special camp was organised to strengthen this aspect of team’s play. This seems to be paying off.
#2 Competition for the forward line
This year’s Pro League is also acting as a trial run for the Olympics, as far as all the teams are concerned. Hence, the Indian team has also used these games to try out several young players or those who were on the edge of the team.
This has been most visible in the forward line. Some talented youngsters who have been on the fringe of the team, like Dilpreet Singh and Simranjeet Singh have been brought in while Raj Kumar Pal has also got a good look in. With so many options, it will require a lot of thinking on the part of the coach and selectors to pick the Indian squad for the Olympics.
SV Sunil looks likely to be in the squad with his abundant experience. Mandeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh are also very likely. But who else would he be paired with remains a conundrum yet to be solved by the selectors.
#3 Chinglensana yet to reach top form
Till mid-2019, Chinglensana Singh Kangujam was India’s gun midfielder. Due to a long injury lay off, he missed a lot of action after Reid took over as the coach. Now he is back in the team but during these matches, he hasn’t been as visible as before.
With players such as Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, and Manpreet himself, the midfield has plenty of talent, but the experience and skill of Chinglensana ought to be valued. It seems that he is yet to fit in to the team as it has evolved under the new leadership.
But if India have to do well at the Olympics and in future in general, it would be very important to get the Arjuna Awardee from Manipur back into full rhythm. Once he starts firing all cylinders, he would become a very valuable asset for the team and would contribute immensely to finding ways through the midfield.
#4 Putting the shootout hoodoo to rest
Another great gain for India from the Pro League matches has been their ability to win shootouts. One can remember how, before coach Reid’s tenure began, the penalty shootouts had been a big thorn in the side of the team. They had lost the shootouts to Australia in the last two Champions Trophy finals, lost the Asian Games semi-final shootout to Malaysia in 2018 and then, the Azlan Shah final shootout to the South Koreans.
Having won shootouts against Netherlands and Australia would give a big boost to the team, especially its goalkeepers. Still, there is room for improvement since the Australians were below par in their efforts in India’s last game. However, the trend is encouraging.
#5 Krishan Pathak’s rise
Another great gain from these six matches so far has been the emergence of Krishan Pathak as a very reliable and effective goalkeeper. The team decided to evenly split the goalkeeping duties between him and the veteran P Sreejesh.
This formula worked nicely as the youngster was up to the mark. Yes, there was the odd mistake, especially when he let a shot go through his legs in the second game against Australia, but those can be expected even from the best. It now looks very likely that India would keep the formula of rotating their keepers in the match through to the Olympics also.