There’s no more ideal preparation than to face the reigning Olympic runners-up and bronze medalists before a major tournament. India’s training is quite neatly arranged that way ahead of the Hockey World League (HWL) semi-finals. Facing Germany and Belgium before the tournament, Hockey India couldn’t have routed its men to London in a better way.
The three-nation invitational in Dusseldorf was used by Roelant Otlmans to run his checklist. But just one win in four matches wouldn’t have ticked all boxes, with the most evident being cracking under last-quarter pressure.
India squandered their lead to lose 1-2 to Belgium and then allowed the Germans to salvage a 2-2 draw. In both the matches, India conceded crucial goals within the last nine minutes. That leaves question marks hanging on the Indian defence in the absence of PR Sreejesh, the captain and goalkeeper.
Sreejesh picked up a knee injury during the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup last month and is still recuperating. His place in the squad has been taken by Vikas Dahiya, who, along with Akash Chikte, will man India’s post at the HWL semis in London as well. The duo has a total experience of 36 internationals between them, with Chikte being the senior partner with 24 caps.
With big boots of Sreejesh to fill, the pair was regularly rotated in Dusseldorf, probably to figure out who is India’s best bet in front of goal. But both buckled under the pressure of dying minutes, which means Sreejesh was more than missed.
The back-up goalkeeper continues to be India’s Achilles heel, but Manpreet Singh, who is leading the team in Sreejesh’s absence, has other views. “Vikas and Akash played very well and didn’t concede more than two goals,” he told Scroll.in. “Both of them played on rotation basis to gain more match practice, and I’m sure their performance here will help them build their confidence.”
But he admitted that in most of those four matches, the team slipped in the final quarter. “The [opening] match against Belgium was good,” he said. “We began well and held a 1-0 lead right until the last quarter. I think we played well until the last quarter and had a few misses before conceding goals in the final quarter.”
He added, “Against Germany, too, we came up with an overall performance. From being one down, we got back into the game with really good goals by Mandeep [Singh] and Sardar [Singh]. The second goal we conceded against Germany was unfortunate. Surender, while defending, got a deflection and it went into the goal. If not, we had that game [won].”
That brings defence into the frame as well. It did appreciably in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where shoddy finishing was the culprit on most occasions. But it seems the defensive wall is still trying to get over VR Raghunath’s absence.
Surender (53 caps), Pardeep Mor (39 caps) and Harmanpreet (34 caps) are only growing as defenders on the senior international turf, and such tours will help them identify their mistakes and limitations.
India will have Netherlands as their biggest rival in Pool B at the HWL semis in London, where they will also face Canada and Scotland in the group stage – besides the big one against Pakistan on June 18.
India’s only win in Dusseldorf came against Belgium, where two goals from dragflicker Harmanpreet led their 3-2 win, which also puts their dependence on penalty corners in perspective.
Manpreet played around that question. “We know the areas where we made mistakes in this tournament and over the next one week, we will work on it before we start our first match in London,” he said. “I am very optimistic we will do well.”