As the Indian men’s hockey team take to the field in Antwerp on May 22, they will enter the business phase of the 2023-24 FIH Pro League. But more importantly, they will be roughly two months away from the 2024 Paris Olympics that begin on July 26.

Much like the India leg, the European leg of the Pro League will serve as crucial practice for the upcoming quadrennial event with them facing opponents that they will play against in Paris.

India are currently third in the standings with 15 points from eight matches. They will be playing Argentina, Belgium, Great Britain and Germany between May 22 and June 9 across Antwerp, Belgium and London, England.

In an interview with this publication, team coach Craig Fulton mentioned that the larger 27-player squad has already been selected after which it will be filtered to the official 16-player squad. In the upcoming eight matches in Europe, Fulton and Co will be looking to focus on fine-tuning issues such as the lack of scoring from open play and finalising the goalkeeper choice between PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak.

Better attacking strategy

While captain Harmanpreet Singh, third in the list of goal-scorers this season with six strikes to his name, is a reknowned drag-flicker, there is an over-reliance on him finding the back of the net. If India want to ensure that they put up a fight against teams like Germany and Belgium, the attacking players especially need to step up.

In their eight Pro League matches played at home, the Indian team scored 19 goals – 11 from penalty corners and eight from open play (counted as field goals). Five of the penalty corners were scored by Harmanpreet Singh while there were seven different players scored field goals – Gurjant Singh, Jarmanpreet Singh, Sukhjeet Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Hardik Singh and Akashdeep Singh.

The only match that saw India not score a goal from a penalty corner was the 1-0 win against Ireland where Gurjant Singh’s strike was the difference between the two sides. Despite the switch in strategies from previous coach Graham Reid to Fulton new style that has seen India strengthen their defensive line, the men’s team have also worked on counter-attacks as their go-to strategy.

But as Fulton pointed out, with teams becoming more defensive, the attacking line needs to become more innovative in creating space to score goals, like in the counter-attack manoeuvres that gave them success both during the Men’s Asian Champions Trophy and the Asian Games. This lack in scoring from open play was also on display during India’s tour of Australia in April when the visitors failed to win a single match.

Furthermore, Fulton may also give chances to Araijeet Singh Hundal and Boby Singh Dhami, forwards from the junior side which could provide a boost for the likes of Upadhyay and Akashdeep Singh who have been struggling with form over the past year.

Also read: Sumit ditches all-rounder role to cement his status as solid defender

Sreejesh or Pathak?

For Tokyo 2020, Sreejesh was still the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper for India. But both Reid and Fulton began substituting the veteran custodian every second quarter for 2016 Junior World Cup winner Pathak.

To observers, while the logical choice might be to go with experienced hands in Sreejesh, the kind of performances that Pathak has been putting in during his quarters is also what is making the decision tough for Fulton. Although there are no restrictions on the number of keepers that can travel to Paris, with the limited seats on the plane, most teams choose to go with one keeper to allow for more choices in outfield players.

Both keepers are quick on the counter and have been proven to hold their nerve in penalty shoot-outs. What makes things more complicated for Fulton is the fact that the defensive line led by Harmanpreet Singh has been quite solid, one of the positives from their India leg matches.

While Fulton is holding his cards close to his chest when it comes to picking the goalkeeper that makes the plane to Paris, both players will want to put in good shifts against opponents who they will also face at the Olympics.

Indian men’s squad for 2023-24 FIH Pro League (Europe leg)

Goalkeepers: Sreejesh Parattu Raveendran, Krishan Bahadur Pathak

Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Sumit, Jugraj Singh, Amit Rohidas, Harmanpreet Singh (captain), Sanjay, Vishnukant Singh 

Midfielders: Hardik Singh (vice captain), Vivek Sagar Prasad, Manpreet Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Shamsher Singh, Rajkumar Pal, Mohammed Raheel Mouseen

Forwards: Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Sukhjeet Singh, Abhishek, Akashdeep Singh, Araijeet Singh Hundal, Boby Singh Dhami

India’s schedule

May 22: vs Argentina at 6.00pm IST in Antwerp

May 24: vs Belgium at 12.30am IST in Antwerp

May 25: vs Belgium at 7.45pm IST in Antwerp

May 26: vs Argentina at 10.00pm IST in Antwerp

June 1: vs Germany at 2.30pm IST in London

June 2: vs Great Britain at 4.45pm IST in London

June 8: vs Germany at 9.45pm IST in London

June 9: vs Great Britain at 7.00pm IST in London