The final rolling substitutions have been done. India’s senior men’s hockey team is set for the last stage of the drill, its coach Roelant Oltmans and High Performance Director David John had cut out at the start of the season.

“The 33 players from the core group will be tried out on three tours to decide the best 18 for Asia Cup and Hockey World League (HWL) Finals later this year,” the duo have said on multiple occasions. The ‘three tours’ started with the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, followed by the HWL semis in London and will now conclude with exposure in Netherlands and Belgium beginning August 9.

The highlight of India’s Europe tour is that half of the 18 members of the squad are last year’s junior world cup winners. It’s the largest inclusion from that group into the same senior team until now, five of whom will make their international debut. The sixth uncapped player of the touring party is goalkeeper Suraj Karkera.

Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar (defenders), Gurjant Singh, Arman Qureshi (forwards), and Nilakanta Sharma (midfielder) – all from the junior world cup-winning team – have received their maiden call-up to the senior national squad.

Besides the above five, Gurinder Singh, Harjeet Singh, Mandeep Singh and Sumit are the other junior world cup winners in the squad and have already made their senior-team debuts.

The inclusion of these many young legs means rest for a few experienced ones. While regular captain PR Sreejesh and Rupinder Pal Singh are injured, Sardar Singh, SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh were given well-deserved rest.

“We told each other that this is our chance to cement a place in the core group,” said Karkera talking to The Field.

Captain Sreejesh Keeping Tabs via WhatsApp

Karkera, who was also selected for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup earlier in April but couldn’t make it to Malaysia due to an injury, said Sreejesh keeps guiding them on the goalkeepers-only Whatsapp group.

“Sreejesh bhai is always there, telling us things like not to go down early, stay focused and keep calling defenders. He stays connected via the Whatsapp group that has all the goalkeepers in it,” said the 21-year-old from Mumbai.

Eyes on Gurjant

Focus will especially be on striker Gurjant Singh who scored in both the semifinal and final of the junior world cup last December.

“Every player from that team had set a senior debut as his next target. Most of us have achieved it now. Nine of us are together in this team, which will obviously help our coordination. It’s a plus point,” the Punjab forward added.

India started well in terms of scoring field goals at the HWL semis in London, but then slowly faded away, which led to embarrassing defeats against Malaysia and Canada.

“Any national camp after a tournament focuses on mistakes from the previous competition. That’s what we have done here in the last six weeks. Besides the skills, we have also worked on the mental aspect to keep patience in the striking circle and wait for the right moment to strike or earn a penalty corner,” Gurjant said, speaking like a senior pro.

New Dragflick Experts

With Harmanpreet Singh also rested, India is without any of their tried-and-tested drag-flickers in the squad. In fact, even Harmanpreet and Rupinder Pal have had a very patchy season so far, missing the target more than hitting it.

With none of them in the squad, young Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey and Amit Rohidas will shoulder that responsibility. Varun didn’t have a fruitful Hockey India League following the junior World Cup high, but is eager to make amends.

“Jugraj sir is working with us very closely and is very particular about how to position if we want to beat the goalkeeper to his right or left with dragflicks. A dragflicker also depends a lot on injection and stopping, which is also being worked upon,” Varun told The Field.

In the past, Jugraj has spoken very highly of Tirkey and Rohidas, and in particular the former.

“Their timing is really good and their stepping is very good,” he said. “The way they can change direction, especially Dipsan, is very good. He is very young and has a lot of time to improve. In the coming time, Dipsan will be on top as well,” he had said earlier this year.

The focus on this Europe tour may not be on wins but to find characters who don’t get ruffled while facing quality opposition and when put under pressure. That’s where India has been found out of late, both in Malaysia and London – failing to deliver when it counted the most.

Oltmans will have his eyes wide open to find those game-changing characters.