In the Super 4’s match in the Asia Cup in Dhaka, striker Gurjant Singh scored a late equaliser against Korea that allowed India to maintain their unbeaten run on their way to the trophy. Defender and drag flick specialist Harmanpreet Singh scored seven goals, the most by any player during the tournament.
Gurjant and Harmanpreet are relative greenhorns in the Indian hockey team. But they, along with four other players who helped India win the 2016 Junior World Cup, will form the spine of the national team that will take on the world’s best in the Hockey World League Final, which begins in Bhubaneshwar on Friday.
The HWL Final serves India the perfect chance to prepare for next year’s World Cup given they are going to take on the likes of defending champions Australia, England and Germany in the group stage.
“The European teams are faster and fitter and this will test their strength,” Aslam Sher Khan, a member of the Indian team which last won the World Cup back in 1975, told The Field. “They play at a different level in the World Cup all together. Hence, this will be a good test for the youngsters. This will show us where we stand.”
Test of skill
Coach Sjoerd Marijne has clearly put his faith in the youngsters of the team to lead the way.
Dipsan Tirkey (19), Varun Kumar (22), Harmanpreet (21), Sumit, Gurjant (22) and Mandeep Singh (22) played crucial roles in lifting the Junior World Cup title in 2016, after a gap of 15 years. Except for Mandeep, the rest were also part of the Asia Cup winning team.
Gurjant scored a total of four goals in the Asia Cup. He also worked well with Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay up front. Sumit had a good run in the tournament assisting in a few goals for India, who netted 28 in the tournament. He also played a crucial role in the midfield with captain Manpreet Singh and Chinglensana Singh.
Varun Kumar and Tirkey were exceptional at the back with the team just conceding six goals in the entire tournament while Harmanpreet held India’s back line together.
“These youngsters won the Junior World Cup and then immediately became a crucial part of the senior men’s team,” Prabhjot Singh, who was part of India’s 2001 Junior World Cup winning team, told The Field. “The same happened in 2001. When you win a World Cup, the confidence level of a player reaches a new high. These six boys have a lot of combinations among themselves and now they will play with the senior players of the team. They will now learn from the seniors and their confidence will get a further boost,” he added.
“Marijne has done a brilliant job with the team so far. The coach has a long term vision. He is thinking about the future. He is thinking on the lines of the World Cup and Olympics. He is looking at the big events. He is looking at a balanced side. The HWL Final will give him an idea of who are his main players for the long run,” added Prabhjot.
Former selector and coach MK Kaushik feels a proper mix of junior and senior players is the way forward and most top teams have been adopting this approach.
“If you look at the foreign teams, they look at a proper mixture of junior and senior players,” Kaushik said. “They look at all aspects before handing out chances to youngsters. If you don’t experiment with the junior players now, then when will you do it? This tournament is best to try out players keeping in mind the World Cup or the Olympics.”
Pressure to perform?
However despite the prospects, the pressure is set to be intense on the youngsters in the upcoming HWL Final. The players will also be competing to cement their spot in the side ahead of a busy 2018 that includes the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and then the World Cup.
“If they want to cement their spot in the side, they will have to perform,” said Prabhjot. “There is a big difference between the junior level tournaments and senior level tournaments. They know, if they perform here, they will get selected. If they don’t, there are other boys available for the same spot,” he added.
These youngsters, though, have given a great account of themselves so far and look a lot matured for their age. The likes of Gurjant, Harmanpreet and Mandeep have the skill-set required to take on teams ranked higher than them, feels Olympian Rahul Singh.
“Mandeep has been playing for the last two years. Even Gurjant Singh and Harmanpreet Singh for that matter have played a lot under pressure,” said Rahul. “Plus playing on your home turf, there is little pressure. Mandeep and Gurjant are opportunistic players and they pounce on any chance that comes their way, which is good.”
One thing is certain. The stage is set for India’s young guns to aim big when the marquee event of the year gets underway on December 1. Recognition at the world stage awaits once again.