The Indian men’s hockey team will be aiming for their ninth gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics next month. With eight golds between 1928 and 1980, India is the most successful nation at the Olympics when it comes to hockey. But the past few decades have seen a drought that the Men in Blue will be trying to end this year.
The Manpreet Singh-led side have been in great form in 2021, winning six matches from a possible 10. They drew thrice and lost once – in European and Argentine tours. However, the team's hopes of going the extra mile in their preparations for the Tokyo Olympics were hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
India had their FIH Pro League matches against Great Britain, Spain, New Zealand and Germany canceled due to the pandemic's intensity in the country, robbing the players of at least 10-15 matches in the lead-up to the Games. They will now play directly in Tokyo and we look at some of the players who could lead India to the podium.
#1. PR Sreejesh
Even at 33, Indian custodian PR Sreejesh is as hungry as any youngster in the squad. A wall under the bar and a veteran of 236 international games for India, Sreejesh will play a vital role in the Men in Blue’s title quest at the Tokyo Olympics.
A leader at the back, Sreejesh can boost team morale on any given day. Opponents have found him tough to beat. His presence of mind, quick reflexes and the ability to deceive an onrushing opponent assure the defenders to go about their job with confidence.
Having made his senior India debut in 2006, Sreejesh is one of several players in the squad to have played in both the 2012 and 2016 editions of the quadrennial event. With his leadership qualities, Sreejesh will serve as an umbrella for the whole Indian team at the Tokyo Olympics.
#2. Manpreet Singh
Formerly, Sardar Singh and Arjun Halappa were the proud holders of the "Midfield Maestro" tag, but it's Manpreet Singh who deserves the label in the current setup. Seen as an inspiration to many youngsters, the Indian captain has led the side by example for the last four to five years.
With head coach Australian Graham Reid by his side, the pair are headed in the right direction leading into the Tokyo Olympics. Like Sreejesh, Manpreet too has played in the last two Olympics, and the combined experience from the duo will be crucial for India to break its four-decade medal drought.
With a huge crop of talented youngsters in the side, it will be a tough task for Manpreet and Reid to pick the best 18 (16 + two reserves) for the Tokyo Olympics.
#3. Harmanpreet Singh
Ever since his debut in 2016, Harmanpreet Singh has been a live wire on the pitch and a vital cog in the Indian setup . Known for giving his side an early lead on more than one occasion, the Indian vice-captain is also famous for his fierce drag flicks.
A veteran of 119 matches for India, Harmanpreet was in top form in the FIH Pro League and also on the European tour earlier in the year. While the pandemic has robbed India of more than 10 competitive FIH Pro League matches, Harmanpreet won't need to cite that as an excuse at any point in the Games. He knows his job well and will surely deliver in Tokyo.
#4. Birendra Lakra
Conceding goals have been a major problem for India in the past few years, but with Birendra Lakra in the backline, things have improved for the better. Fitness is also one of the areas Lakra has worked on extensively and along with the likes of Rupinder Pal Singh and Surender Kumar, India has one of the strongest backlines in the world.
As the biggest mainstay of India’s defense line, Lakra will be looking to prove a point, having missed the Rio Olympics flight in 2016. He is just four matches shy of making 200 appearances for India.
Youngsters to be India's USP at Tokyo Olympics
The infusion of young blood into the Indian side over the last few years has worked well so far for Coach Reid. With humidity also a concern at the Tokyo Olympics and matches thick and fast, the youthful crop could play a crucial role for Reid.
The Olympics have been a platform for many in the past to excel on the world stage. The way Nilam Sanjeep Xess, Raj Kumar Pal, Jarmanpreet Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad and others have been delivering for India, Reid will be spoilt for choice! Each of them will be looking for his name on the squad list for the Tokyo Olympics but the coach will have to choose wisely.