Opinion: What to expect from the Indian women's hockey team in Malaysia
It is an important year for the Indian hockey teams, both men and women, as they will look to book their berth for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Having missed out on the quota places at the Asian Games last year, they have to work extra hard to secure the lucrative spots.
The women's team will be playing against Malaysia over the course of the next seven days as part of their preparations for the qualifiers scheduled for later this year. The team will be led by season campaigner and goalkeeper Savita Punia in the absence of Rani Rampal.
Here's what one can expect from the women in blue in Malaysia:
The youngsters stepping up
The team has received a big boost in the form of younger players like Lalremsiami, Salima Tete, Neha Goyal among others. The newfound talent has imbued confidence into the lineup which looks formidable in all departments.
Lalremsiami, in particular, has been an intriguing prospect and she will be the one to look out for in the forward lineup. She is a great team player with brilliant anticipation skills and one can expect her to get better with time. If she can contribute towards engineering smart attacks at the opposition's goalpost, India will be hard to stop.
With the absence of Rampal and some of the other senior members of the team, it is the perfect opportunity for these players to find their stride.
Defence holding strong
The one aspect of the Indian team's style of play that does not get enough appreciation is their impeccable defense. I, for one, would go on to call it one of the best in the game. When they are combining well, the Indian defenders can be a nightmare to get past for even the best of teams.
And that is precisely why I do not see Malaysia scoring many goals against the Indian side during the tour. The Indian team's quintessential discipline in defense, their temperament during pressure situations, their near-perfect tackle and steals might prove to be a bit much for the Malaysian team to handle.
Sushila Chanu and Sunita Lakra, both making a return to the side after injuries, will spearhead the defense. Deep Grace Ekka, who has been named the vice-captain will also be in good spirits and be looking to make a mark on the tournament.
Focus on the team's overall performance
Indian hockey has, for a long time, valued individual brilliance over team wins. While Indian players have ranked among the best when it comes to natural talent and skills with the hockey stick, it is the European nations that have overtaken them by playing a much faster, team-oriented style of hockey.
With Indian teams, both men and women, often seen struggling to keep pace with the European opponents' swift push passes and forward movement, it is about time that the coaches began focusing on inculcating the same elements into the game of the erstwhile hockey greats.
The onus here comes down to the midfield to ensure smooth movement of the ball from the back end towards the opponents' goalpost. We simply cannot be relying on long, unguided passes and lazy running in the midfield anymore.
Experienced mid-fielders including Monika, Nikki Pradhan, and Lilima Minx will have to step up and make sure they keep possession of the ball and rotate it well while moving it forward, preferably using a lot more push passes to keep their opponents guessing.
If all goes as per the plans, the Indian team should return with wins in all of their fixtures in Malaysia. The real test, however, awaits them later in the year, will the Olympic qualifiers.