Year of reckoning? Bring it on!
2017 was a mixed year for the Indian Men's Hockey Team on the turf. It started with a lot of promise, went off track in between, and ended with a flourish by clinching the Asia Cup and Bronze medal at the Hockey World League finals in Bhubaneswar.
The year also witnessed changes at the helm of the team, a new philosophy being introduced into the style of play and the birth of some new stars for the sport.
Many experts feel 2018 will truly be the year of reckoning for Indian Hockey as three major competitions are lined up for the team in the form of the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup in Bhubaneswar.
The expectations from the fans for these tournaments are clear. A first Commonwealth Gold Medal, defending their crown at the Asian Games and winning the back the title of World champions on home soil.
Well clearly, the tasks have been cut out and it's far from easy as it sounds. But the passionate support for the sport can actually be optimistic about the team's chance as they set out for glory starting with the Commonwealth Games.
Marijne and the change in attitude
When Sjoerd Marijne was made the head coach of the side, it raised quite a few eyebrows. The Dutch tactician had never coached a Men's national team and his stint with the Indian Eves, even though promising, did not translate into inspiring performances.
But Marijne started his tenure with a bang. He delivered the Asian Cup on his first tournament with the side and followed it up with the Bronze medal at the Hockey World League Final.
The coach has brought a change of philosophy in the team and inculcated the 'player-driven' approach into his side. Marijne wants his players to set an example each game and carry the momentum into the next one.
And the boys have responded well to this refreshing change and have started off 2018 with some assuring performances. Two runner-up finishes during the tour of New Zealand meant the team were off to a good start in this make or break season.
Even though they finished fifth in the recently concluded Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, the young and experimental side gave the best teams in the world a run for their money and refused to give up.
Marijne is also critical of the team when there is a dip in performance as he was the first to point out their dwindling penalty corner conversation rate. But with former Australian drag-flicker Chris Ciriello joining his backroom staff, the coach can expect an improvement in that aspect as well.
Injection of young blood
The amount of young talent that has come into the Indian team over the years has been remarkable.
India has found themselves a quality leader in Manpreet Singh who has been one of India's most improved players in recent times. Not only has the midfielder elevated his game to a new level, Manpreet has become the axis around which the team revolves at the moment.
Well supported by the likes of Chinglensana and Harmanpreet Singh, some of the young talents who made their debut last year have become an integral part of the team.
Players like Gurjant Singh, Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey and Suraj Karkera made their debuts last year and were part of the victorious Junior World Cup-winning team from 2016. Their transition has into the national side has been smooth and slowly they have become guys the team can depend upon.
Add to this mix Dilpreet Singh and Vivek Sagar Prasad, who were part of the Junior Men's Team and top performers in last year's Sultan of Johor Cup where India finished third. Dilpreet was also the joint top goalscorer in the tournament with a tally of nine goals.
The youngsters made their debuts during the New Zealand tour and also scored a couple of goals each in their first match in the national jersey against Japan, suddenly you feel that this is the most exciting talent pool India has possessed since a long time.
Even though the presence of young players excite the fans, one would feel on the big stage and in pressure matches, these prospects could falter. The side that went to the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup this year did put up a good show but did create many errors, especially in the surprise 3-2 loss to Ireland.
This where the experience and calmness of players like PR Sreejesh and Rupinder Pal Singh matters. Both have been champion players for the team delivering world-class performances when it has mattered the most.
Rupinder and Sreejesh have recently made their comebacks from long-term injuries and will surely add the much-needed balance to the squad and will aid in the development of India's rising stars.
India will depend on Rupinder to score goals from his thunderous Penalty Corners and hope Sreejesh will be up to the task to make some top-class saves and frustrate the opposition at the other end.
Also, the presence of experienced campaigners like SV Sunil, Lait Upadhyay and Akashdeep Singh has not only made the competition for places tough but has given Coach Marijne a selection headache which he will be happy about.
The path towards glory for India will certainly face many obstacles, the first one coming in the form of arch-rivals Pakistan on 7th April at the Commonwealth Games.
But these are certainly exciting times for a hockey fan in India and the biggest joy could be ushered in on December this year when they could be crowned as World Champions in front of the hockey frenzy crowd of Bhubaneswar.