Indian hockey fans are not going to forget 2021 in a hurry. The women’s team defeating Australia in the quarter-finals at Tokyo Olympics was, arguably, one of the best results featuring India across sporting events in the year. The men’s team going on to finish with bronze, to end a 41-year-old wait for a hockey medal at the Olympics, is something that many fans and former players were desperate to see in their lifetimes.

Indeed, at a tournament of many highs, the hockey medal will remain one to remember for a long time... but for coach Graham Reid and his team, the time to move on is already here. They have, of course, been in action briefly since but as an action-packed 2022 begins for Manpreet Singh and Co, the message is clear. Use Tokyo as a springboard, not the finish line.

“After the bronze medal match, Manpreet and I came to each other and said this isn’t the end of our journey,” coach Reid told journalists in a virtual press conference on 28 January, following the squad announcement for the upcoming FIH Hockey Pro League matches in South Africa.

“This is just the start. That’s been our message from the start. We have to take the best of our opportunities from here.”

And that’s where Reid saw the underwhelming bronze medal finish at Asian Champions Trophy as a learning experience.

“It’s difficult (to motivate players after experiencing the highs of 2021). You have to be put in such situations. Everybody including myself hated losing in that semifinal against Japan. No one likes to experience something like that. It’s not much fun. But sometimes you have to experience that to learn from it. That’s the message after that tournament: ‘this is what happens if we don’t treat every single game with utmost importance’. It was a really good learning curve,” he said.

India will start the year with back-to-back Pro League ties against South Africa and France in Potchefstroom from February 8 to 13.

Olympic bronze medal-winning captain Manpreet Singh will lead a 20-member Indian team in the double-leg contests in South Africa. The team will also have its veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh back besides getting two new faces in. But the coach made it clear that the intention has been to pick a strong squad, which originally featured just two new names, in response to whether more experimentation could have been done.

“We were able to do that in Bangladesh (give chances to new players). We were able to give the players who haven’t had the opportunity for a while. We also needed to bring back some of the other players who haven’t had a game since the Olympics. The other important message is that these will be very tough games, I want everyone to understand that we are taking them pretty seriously so the team we picked is reflective of that,” the 57-year-old said.

Speaking in specific about the two new names – young dragflicker Jugraj Singh and striker Abhishek – Reid said, “Jugraj is quite a versatile player who can play in both midfield and defence. He is also very quick when he dragflicks, think scored quite a few in the nationals. I am quite excited, seeing his speed with dragflicks, if we can get him little more consistent where he puts them. Abhishek is a striker who scored quite a few goals at the National Championships. He was quite prolific in the trial games we had at the camp. It will be exciting for these two guys to make their debutHe is strong and young, keen. It’s always good to have some influx into the group.”

The Australian tactician was full of appreciation for skipper Manpreet’s competitive spirit, lauding his drive to get better and also spoke highly of the returning Sreejesh.

“Yes Sreejesh is back, he has had a long break but you don’t get to play so long for your country as he has without being open to new ideas and changes and development and continual improvement. I had a good chat with him at the start of the camp and we sat down, to speak about the areas to improve and I told him to be honest, ‘you have to have the same drive and same commitment that you had when you are 19’. That’s what I told Jamie Dwyer (Aussie legend) when he was towards the latter part of his career.

“These guys, they are in these teams for long, get these awards for being the best... and it is no accident. Because they are constantly wanting to get better. If he can still play as well as he does, it’s a great thing for us,” Reid said.

And with the men’s team set to enter a hectic phase this year, with Pro League and a couple of big-ticket events before next year’s World Cup, workload management is at the uppermost of Reid’s mind, with Mitchell Pemberton having taken charge as Scientific Advisor of the men’s team to help him out in that regard.

Late squad changes

The team, which left South Africa in the early hours of Friday, received a minor set back with two of their players replaced due to illness

“India forward Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Jaskaran Singh will not be joining the team for South Africa. Standbys Sumit will replace Jaskaran in the mid-field and Gursahibjit Singh will replace Lalit,” Reid said in a statement issued by Hockey India. “Though it is a minor setback for us, we were always prepared for such a scenario and had the option of having five standbys.”

Covid-19 has posed its fair share of challenges to sporting teams around the world and Indian hockey (men and women) have been no exception. Reid, who joked during the interaction last week that “it will become one of the new normals of this Covid era... you’ve got your ‘mute’ on during an online chat”, said that the squad is aware of the protocols required these days and the depth of talent pool becomes essential in this time. You just have to be prepared personnel-wise to have back-ups at all positions. “An ever-changing situation that requires us to be diligent,” Reid said adding that team go through detailed scenarios in their squad to be ready for eventualities.

“Welcome to my life for the last three years, I think I have been going through more Plans Bs, Cs and Ds than ever before,” he said. “You can’t change what happens to you sometimes, you can only control how you react. Our guys have a good history of being able to accept something, move on... we sort of call it the next-thing mentality. Part of it is built into the system that we play, part of it is in selections. We and try make our players as flexible as possible.”

And it is that next-thing mentality that India would like to master as they look to build on a memorable 2021.

India men’s updated squad for FIH Pro League matches in South Africa:

Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Krishan Pathak.

Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar, Jarmanpreet Singh, Jugraj Singh.

Mid-fielders: Manpreet Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Hardik Singh, Sumit, Shamsher Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad.

Forwards: Mandeep Singh, Gursabjit Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Shilanand Lakra, Dilpreet Singh, Abhishek.

With PTI and Hockey India inputs