Indian hockey has seen its fair share of debatable and sometimes inexplicable team selections on the eve of big events and the trend continues as we head into the 32nd edition of the Olympic Games under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Graham Reid's Tokyo-bound squad have thrown up a few talking points surrounding the exclusion of three men up front who have played a vital role in the team's fortunes over the years.
Talismanic forward Akashdeep Singh, whose sheer presence in the attacking circle was quite enough to ring alarm bells for the opposition, failed to make it to the final list as did his compatriots SV Sunil and Ramandeep Singh.
While Akashdeep's non-inclusion was the subject of much deliberation, the uncertainty surrounding the future of the two veteran strikers, for reasons that remain unclear, has caused some disquiet amongst the Indian hockey fraternity.
A young and relatively inexperienced bunch of immensely talented forwards who have not played a lot of international hockey together will now attempt to get the Indians onto the podium in Tokyo.
The two questions being asked repeatedly, as the opening game draws near, are whether players like Shamsher Singh can handle the pressure of the big stage, and whether the presence of Sunil and Akashdeep would have helped when the going gets tough at Tokyo.
After all, when a young Indian outfit went down fighting against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, experts cited the lack of experience as the prime factor behind the loss, which also led to the sacking of coach Harendra Singh.
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In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Olympian and former coach Joaquim Carvalho shared his thoughts about the lack of experience in attack and how it can affect India's prospects in a tournament like the Olympics.
"The atmosphere of the Olympics is totally unlike any other tournament. It is unlike the World Cup, the Champions Trophy, or the Asian Games. One has to be an Olympian to feel and understand the pressure of playing on the Olympic stage."
He went on to add:
"When a team has a bad day at the Olympics, bouncing back is an enormous challenge. It leaves you physically and mentally drained. Until you play and win the next match, the pressure is never off you. That is where the value of experience comes in."
End of the road for Indian hockey star SV Sunil?
Speedy Karnataka striker SV Sunil has been out of favor with selectors ever since being left out of the World Cup.
The 31-year-old from Sowmarpet, whose lightning-fast dribbles and linear sprints have ripped through more than a few well-woven defences over the years, finds himself out in the cold as the twilight years begin to descend faster than one might have expected.
The Olympian and Arjuna awardee, who has played under a record number of coaches during the course of his 14-year career, was never a favorite to make it to the Olympic squad after being overlooked for both the European Tour and the Hockey Pro League matches against Argentina earlier this year.
Sunil, who missed a crucial shootout in the semifinals of the Asian Games against Malaysia, has yet to play in a major tournament since the Jakarta debacle.
At the press conference that followed the team selections, coach Graham Reid spoke at length about the heat and humidity of Tokyo and why the two back-to-back matches necessiated the selection of players who could cope from a fitness perspective.
While the coach and captain refused to take the names of individual players during the meet, Carvalho was quick to point out that, as per his sources, fitness was not an issue for either SV Sunil or Akashdeep Singh. He said:
"According to my sources, if you are talking about fitness, all these boys who were left out were very fit and passed the fitness tests with scores that were way above the qualifying parameters"
While coach Reid shed light on the fact that the players selected could play in different positions - across attack, midfield, and defense should they need to fill in for an injured teammate for a match or two, Carvalho chose to differ with that opinion.
The man who was part of, arguably, India's best ever team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics opined that a few specialists with the expertise to score goals are always needed even if they couldn't play total hockey.
"Players like SV Sunil are specialist forwards. He is a very good ball player. He can make a switch from defence to attack. He has got speed and a very lethal thrust and burst.
"His fitness and experience stand out for me. Sunil is someone who can carry a ball from his own half all the way to the attacking circle. With due respect to the coach, it is my opinion that SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh should have been in the team. When the forward line doesn't score goals the pressure comes on to the deep defence and the team then concedes goals."
The Australian coach's emphasis on "the freshness and exuberance of youth" being the philosophy of the land he hails from could well be the eloquent but indirect answer that many seek with regard to why SV Sunil will not board the flight to Tokyo.
To highlight the value of experience in big matches, Carvalho chose to point out the disastrous yellow card picked up by Amit Rohidas in the World Cup quarterfinals which upset the team's rhythm at a crucial juncture. Carvalho said:
"An experienced player, in a crucial match of the World Cup like a quarterfinal will not pick up a yellow card for an infringement. Experience counts."
The agony continues for Ramandeep post comeback
After scoring the opening goal against Pakistan in the 2018 Champions Trophy, ace striker Ramandeep Singh felt a pin-and-needle sensation in his right knee but continued to play after having the affected area taped by the team physio.
The lad from Punjab with over 130 international caps to his name had to be operated on for an ACL tear and went on to miss the Asian Games and the World Cup later that year.
After being out of action for well over a year, Ramandeep made his way back into the national team for the 2020 Hockey Pro League encounter against Belgium where he seemed overly eager to impress and scored the winner against the world champions much to the delight of his fans.
Yet again, Ramandeep failed to make it to the side for the Pro League encounter against Argentina earlier this year, and subsequently missed out on a ticket to Tokyo as well.
Carvalho believes Ramandeep's frequent injuries may have been the reason for his exclusion from a big tournament like the Olympics.
Ramandeep has been injury prone and perhaps coach Reid did not want to risk playing him at Tokyo. An injury midway through the Games can be disastrous for the team.
Perhaps unconnected to the value element in the team that the seniors could have taken along to Tokyo, lies the less-talked-about personal distress that accompanies being left out of a tournament every athlete dreams of being part of.
For SV Sunil, who is no longer part of the coach's scheme of things, walking into the twilight may seem rather unavoidable at the moment, but for a player who has contributed immensely to Indian hockey for close to a decade and a half, a befitting farewell post the Olympics is, perhaps, not too much to ask for.
For now, though, Indian hockey fans around the world will hope that Mandeep, Lalit, Shamsher, Gurjant, Simranjeet, and Dilpreet coalesce in unison to help India recreate history in Tokyo.