Perspective in sport is important and with time, things tend to change. As the Indian men’s hockey team has mentioned in the past, one of their philosophies is to ‘zoom in zoom out’ as required. So, on the one hand you can say that their last season came to an end with a disappointing, freak result against the mighty Australians in the final of the Commonwealth Games. Or, on the other side, the season itself was one of many positives with a third-place finish in the FIH Pro League (that included some fine performances against Belgium and Netherlands) and a return to the CWG final after missing out on the podium completely in 2018.

Hockey, FIH Pro League: Harmanpreet Singh to lead 22-member Indian squad for Spain, NZ matches

As they return to action after a break, both aspects are to be addressed as the team prepares for another major tournament looming on the horizon. A World Cup at home. And the first big step towards that begins on Friday in Odisha, as Indian men return to action in the FIH Pro League 2022-’23. New Zealand and Spain will offer Harmanpreet Singh-led Indian team four stern tests over the next week or so.

“We had some very good, candid, honest, reflective conversations, where we got to the bottom of what we were all thinking at the time,” India head coach Graham Reid said in a press conference in Odisha on Thursday about that final against Australia.

“That’s a really important thing. I remember back in 2019 when we played New Zealand at the Tokyo test event, from memory, we lost in the last 20 seconds of the game... we had a very similar conversation after that trying to make sure we understood what was going through our heads. One of the things with success is that it’s often built on failure, that’s life. Sometimes you have to understand what you are doing wrong, before you do it right. No one likes to lose like that as we did at CWG, hopefully we learned our lessons. We’ve done a lot of soul-searching, let’s push forward.”

For the upcoming four matches, Harmanpreet Singh – recently named as the FIH Men’s Player of the Year for last season – will lead India with Manpreet Singh deputising. It is something Indian men have been doing in the Pro League, with Amit Rohidas taking leadership for portions of last season.

“Last season was quite good for us, and we are back in action after CWG. Our attempts will be to pick up from where we left off and focus on playing well from the first match. We know the important areas that we have had to work on, and whatever we can learn from these matches, and that will be important from the few matches we have before the World Cup,” Harmanpreet said in the press conference, adding that there is no additional pressure on him being the leader.

“One of our objectives over the last year has been to try and expand the skillset of our leadership group,” Reid explained his decision. “I think it’s a really important job to be the captain of the Indian hockey team, and it’s good that we are able to have players who can share it. Harman is a proven player and leader, but to be captain requires a set of extra skills and it is good from a development perspective. I want a team full of leaders.”

Elaborating on what leadership entails in hockey, where a lot of decisions are taken on the bench, Reid added: “Off field leadership, it is to gel the squad together, make sure we are all on the same page, the link between leadership group and team and the support staff. On field, it is important to have leadership from as many people as possible. Amit and Manpreet, won’t stop leading on the pitch. Even Harman as vice captain [was a leader].”

Tighter defence

Of course, beyond intangibles like leadership and soul-searching, the attention will quickly turn towards tangibles on the field once the campaign gets underway. The Australia match in Birmingham was a firm reminder that this team is still a work in progress, and that is evidently not lost on the Indian think-tank. Reid spoke a fair bit about improving the defensive skills.

“We have four [Pro League] games now and then five games in Australia, it’s a pretty important preparatory phase coming up,” the Australian coach said. “We’ve been doing a lot of work going back to the basics as I’d like to do with the team. Trying to work on our collective defensive mindset, trying to get a little bit tighter. Corners are of course, always there. But also, with our attacking, we are trying to get a little better around scoring zones. Rather than the big hits at goal, we are trying to get better with our touch around the striking areas.”

About the defence, Reid – who was named FIH men’s team coach of the year – further added that preventing goal-scoring is a collective area to improve, not just individual tackling. Another area that the team has worked on in the camp in Bengaluru and now in Odisha is bringing in subtlety to their attacks.

“We talked about trying to be a little tighter in defence, that’s something we have let ourselves down in. Not marking tight enough. Of course, we try to promote going forward, attacking and really good solid forward play, but sometimes we forget about our defensive work. Things like tight marking in the circle, thinking as a collective rather than individuals tackling, how do we do that together in scenarios. And other area is, in India sometimes we try hit the ball at a 1000 miles an hour (smiles) but in reality, all we need to do is beat the goalkeeper, so sharper shooting,” Reid said.

The Indian team will also see some fresh faces in Mohd Raheel Mouseen, who was part of India’s victorious outing in the FIH Hockey 5’s earlier this year and S Karthi, who played his first senior international tournament for India at the Asia Cup Jakarta.

“As far as targets are concerned, for me it’s about consolidating what our World Cup team looks like. The other is to, win every game of course, that doesn’t change. We get an opportunity to test ourselves against world class opportunities. World Cup remains our longer term goal, the shorter term is to keep getting better,” said Reid.

What’s new in Pro League?

Each team will face the other 8 teams twice in the season, for a total of 16 games, but the home-away concept is done with. The League will be split into multiple mini-tournaments, where a set of 3 teams will gather in one host nation and play all their matches against each other, setting up 6 games per mini-tournament.

While the Pro League’s relevance is sometimes questioned because teams treat it as an opportunity to blood in youngsters and test out talent depth, some tweaks have been introduced this season. It is unlikely to suddenly change teams’ mindsets in terms of going all out, but adds a layer of intrigue for sure.

“From Season 4 (2022-’23), the last teams of the Pro League will be relegated and the first teams in the Nations Cup will be promoted. It has to be an open league,” FIH CEO Thierry Weil had said in a recent media interaction.

“The Season 5 and 6 winners of the Pro League will directly qualify for the 2026 World Cup and the winners of the next two editions (Season 7 and 8) will qualify for the 2028 Olympics.” The direct qualification from continental events will remains.

For India, only the men’s team will be part of the League. The women’s team made their debut last season, filling in for withdrawals but they are out of it now with the teams returning. Indian women will have to win the upcoming Nations Cup to earn their place in season 5.

And finally of course, with fans expected back in the stands in Odisha, Harmanpreet said the whole squad is excited about the prospect of a bouncing Kalinga Stadium. Pre-pandemic, playing hockey at this venue almost always meant an electric atmosphere from the fans who turned up in numbers.

“From Covid-19 times, this is what we have been missing,” captain Harmanpreet said. “To have fans back.... and to have a World Cup at home... we are very excited. The crowd in Odisha is always very supportive. When the full stadium chants India, we get goosebumps. We want to feel that again, and make sure focus on getting our game right. Really excited.”

Goalkeepers: Krishan Bahadur Pathak, PR Sreejesh  

Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh (Captain), Amit Rohidas, Jugraj Singh, Mandeep Mor, Nilam Sanjeep Xess 

Midfielders: Sumit, Manpreet Singh (Vice-captain), Hardik Singh, Moirangthem Rabichandra Singh, Shamsher Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Rajkumar Pal, Mohd. Raheel Mouseen 

Forwards: S. Karthi, Mandeep Singh, Abhishek, Dilpreet Singh, Sukhjeet Singh

India matches timings and telecast details:

India vs New Zealand, 28th October from 1900 hrs IST.

India vs Spain, 30th October from 1900 hrs IST

India vs New Zealand, 4th November from 1900 hrs IST

India vs Spain, 6th November from 1900 hrs IST

Matches will be broadcast on Star Sports Select 1/2 SD + HD and Disney+Hotstar