Dabaav. Pressure. For almost the whole pre-tournament press conference, India men’s hockey team captain Harmanpreet Singh and chief coach Graham Reid were asked the same basic question in a variety of ways. ‘How are you dealing with the pressure of playing the hockey World Cup in front of home fans?’
It’s the pressure of continuing the good run of form India have had in the past two years which has yielded a long-awaited Olympic medal, a Commonwealth Games medal and going toe-to-toe with the best in the business. Ultimately it’s also the pressure of ending the long wait for a second World Cup.
But then again, this is an Indian team which has been dealing with the weight of expectation after their Tokyo heroics. It is a team which boasts of a good balance between youth and experience.
“The World Cup comes once every four years. To play on home soil with the support of your home crowd, in your home conditions, is a great opportunity for the side. The plan is to continue doing what we are doing good. We have read and analysed our opponents well in the team meeting. We have worked on the mistakes made previously,” Harmanpreet said.
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In Reid, they have a coach who has built a tactically sound team which plays good hockey and has the ability to take the match to more illustrious opponents.
“For me, it is about staying in the moment. That’s what we talk a lot about, staying focused. If pressure is getting to you, if you have nerves, it means that you are off-task. It means you are either thinking about something that is going to happen or something that has happened,” Reid said.
“One of the good things about hockey is you get the chance to come off the pitch and reset if you didn’t play well at the start. It’s a matter of understanding and getting to a point where you can let it motivate you but you don’t go over the top,” he added.
In Harmanpreet Singh, India have a captain and talisman who remains calm and unfazed even when facing overwhelming odds. In the midfield pair of Manpreet Singh and Hardik Singh, India have two of the finest creative players in the world currently. While in attack, India possess a good balance between experienced and youthful forwards, in goal, they have two solid keepers in PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak.
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India begin their campaign against Spain in a tricky Group D tie at the imposing Birsa Munda Stadium. The two have met 30 times with India winning 13 matches, drawing seven and losing 10. The Spaniards, coached by the seasoned Max Caldas, are the youngest and the least experienced side in Odisha. However, the youthful Spanish side has been a thorn in India’s side in the last couple of years with both sides winning two matches apiece and drawing one.
Reid refused to take Spain for granted despite their relative inexperience, saying, “I always say ‘Beware of the youth’. They have an ability to perform much higher than what they perhaps think they can. There is no fear, they’ve got nothing to lose. You have got to watch out for those kinds of teams. I think experience is a bit overrated sometimes at a major tournament like this.”
If recent matches are anything to go by, India’s second group stage match, against England, promises to be a goalfest. The two teams met in three thrilling matches in 2022 which saw 21 goals scored. In the Commonwealth Games, India squandered a 4-1 lead in the fourth quarter to draw 4-4.
That India will play debutant Wales on the final matchday bodes well for Reid’s side. Should the top three teams beat each other leading to a tie for first place, India would go into their final match knowing what they need to do to top the group.
India have been saying the right things in the build up to the marquee tournament. The importance of staying in the moment, the ability to recover quickly from setbacks, the need for each player to fulfill their individual duties for the greater good of the team. The real test now would be to put those words into action.
India’s Group D fixtures
India vs Spain - 7 pm on January 13 at the Birsa Munda Stadium, Rourkela
India vs England - 7 pm on January 15 at the Birsa Munda Stadium, Rourkela
India vs Wales - 7 pm on January 19 at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar
India’s squad for the World Cup
Goalkeepers: Krishan Bahadur Pathak, PR Sreejesh
Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh (Captain), Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas (Vice Captain), Nilam Sanjeep Xess
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Shamsher Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Akashdeep Singh
Forwards: Mandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Abhishek, Sukhjeet Singh
Alternate players: Rajkumar Pal, Jugraj Singh