A year on after ending a 41-year wait for an Olympic medal in hockey, the Indian men’s hockey team go into the 2022 Commonwealth Games hoping to exorcise the ghosts from Gold Coast four years ago and win a first-ever gold medal at the event.
At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, India topped their pool but lost in the semifinals and the bronze medal match. On paper, a fourth-place finish does not seem bad but on focusing on India’s matches, one realises that India were not at their best.
A penalty corner right at the death denied India a 2-1 victory over Pakistan. Against Wales and England, India needed two late goals to eke out 4-3 wins. The semifinals saw India fall behind 2-0 in the first quarter and spend the rest of the 2-3 loss chasing the Kiwis before losing in the bronze medal match to England.
“Last time we had good teams in our pool and we kind of underestimated them. This time we have learnt from our mistakes. We have a zoom-out-zoom-in philosophy in place. When we zoom out, we know what we want to achieve, which is win a medal. When we zoom in, we focus on each match and look to execute our game plan. This time we are taking every team seriously and prepare our game plan accordingly,” captain Manpreet Singh said in a virtual press conference from Birmingham.
A frustrating third-place finish at the 2018 Asian Games was followed up by a quarterfinal exit at the home World Cup. The poor run of results led to Sjoerd Marijne losing his job, then replaced by Harendra Singh who was not long after replaced by Graham Reid as the head coach in early 2019.
But from the days of musical chair, now there is stability. Under the Australian’s stewardship, India has progressed well finishing fourth and third in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 Pro Leagues to go with the bronze from Tokyo.
Having being part of the coaching set up of the highly successful Australian side for close to a decade, Reid understands the weight of expectation from the Indian team, especially after Tokyo 2020.
Reid has used the Pro League and the Asian Champions Trophy to bleed in young players like Jugraj Singh and Abhishek which has increased India’s squad depth. The Australian has focused on improving India’s decision-making in front of goal as well as being more lethal from penalty corners.
India finished the 2021-22 Pro League as top scorers with 62 goals of which 31 came from set-pieces and 31 from field goals. Harmanpreet Singh, who Reid said he has believed since the start could be one of the best in the world, was the top scorer of the season with 18 goals to his name. The Pro League was capped off with an impressive showing in the final leg which saw Reid’s men give a tough fight to European powerhouses Belgium and the Netherlands. Though they failed to nab an outright win, the European tour did not see India being brushed off easily either.
“There is an air of optimism among the players and doing well in Belgium and Netherlands will give us the right momentum ahead of the Commonwealth Games in July. With the Asia Cup team doing well too, our depth of players has only increased, making the team selection process for major tournaments all the more tough and interesting,” Reid had said after the tour.
The strong showing in the Pro League has not only instilled confidence in the team, but has also increased the level of expectations from the side in Birmingham. One that Reid is confident his team can manage.
“I don’t think anyone else’s expectations of us are more than our expectations of ourselves. We have high expectation from ourselves. Of course, we can’t do anything about the external pressure but the internal pressure is in our control. It’s the same in Australia where the focus is on medals. So too with India where every time we go for a Games, the expectations from the public is that we win a medal,” Reid said.
Fighting till the end
One of India’s problem areas of the past is now their strengths. The team under Reid have shown a knack to score late goals. Indeed, 12 of Indian men’s team’s 62 goals during Pro League season came after the 55-minute mark. Nine of those 12, came in the 58th minute or beyond. Eight of those 12 in close matches (when the margin between teams was not more than 2 at the time of scoring).
Of course, any coach would like for the matches to be sealed nice and early but should things go to the wire, this Indian team is more than capable of finding the late spark.
Indian men's team late goals during Pro League
|RSA v IND||58||Singh Dilpreet||Field Goal||2 - 10|
|FRA v IND||57||SINGH Harmanpreet||Penalty Stroke||3 - 2|
|RSA v IND||56||Singh Shamsher||Field Goal||2 - 8|
|RSA v IND||60||SINGH Harmanpreet||Penalty Corner||2 - 9|
|RSA v IND||60||SINGH Harmanpreet||Penalty Corner||2 - 10|
|IND v ESP||55||Kumar Varun||Penalty Corner||4 - 4|
|IND v ESP||60||SINGH Harmanpreet||Penalty Stroke||5 - 4|
|IND v ARG||60||Singh Mandeep||Field Goal||2 - 2|
|IND v ARG||60||Singh Mandeep||Field Goal||4 - 3|
|BEL v IND||58||Singh Jarmanpreet||Penalty Corner||3 - 3|
|BEL v IND||60||Singh Mandeep||Field Goal||3 - 2|
|NED v IND||60+||SINGH Harmanpreet||Penalty Corner||2 - 2|
In Birmingham, India are in Pool A with hosts England, Canada, Wales and Ghana.
India start their campaign on July 31 with a match against debutants Ghana followed by a tough clash against England the next day. After two rest days, Manpreet and Co will take on Canada and Wales on August 3 and 4 respectively. Should India finish in the top two, they would likely face Australia or defending champions New Zealand in the semifinals.
Despite sitting out of the 2021-22 Pro League due to the pandemic, Australia are still the team to beat. The Kookaburras comprehensively beat Malaysia and New Zealand in two four-match series between April and June. To fine tune their preparations, the Aussies played Spain and the Netherlands in July winning three out of five matches.
Manpreet, however, stated that unlike in 2018, India will not be focused solely on beating Australia in Birmingham.
“That was a big mistake and it hurts us a lot. We have learnt our lessons from that. We are taking every team seriously. We are not focusing just on Australia. We just can’t be complacent like previous times. We will go match by match. The target, of course, is to win a medal. We are going with that sort of a mind-set,” the captain and flagbearer said.
Indian men’s hockey team for CWG:
GOALKEPERS: PR Sreejesh, Krishan Bahadur Pathak
DEFENDERS: Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh (VC), Amit Rohidas, Jugraj Singh, Jarmanpreet Singh
MIDFIELDERS: Manpreet Singh (C), Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Shamsher Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Nilakanta Sharma
FORWARDS: Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Abhishek
India's Pool A fixtures
|Ghana|| July 31|| 8.30 pm IST|
|England|| August 1|| 8.30 pm IST|
|Canada|| August 3|| 6.30 pm IST|
|Wales|| August 4|| 6.30 pm IST|