India hockey men’s team start their Commonwealth Games campaign at Gold Coast, Australia on Saturday. First up, they will face arch-rivals Pakistan. It will be a test of nerves for players of both teams.
For Indian hockey fans, the match and the rest of the tournament will provide a glimpse into how the outfit performs in high-stakes clashes. With the Asian Games and World Cup to follow later this year, 2018 is an important year.
Coach Sjoerd Marijne and skipper Manpreet Singh have already stressed on the importance of clinching gold in Gold Coast.
In the lead up to the tournament, Marijne has dropped experienced hands Sardar Singh and Ramandeep Singh, putting the onus on the youngsters to perform.
Five players from the 2016 Junior World Cup winning squad. Haramanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh and Sumit will be playing in their first Commonwealth Games.
While Gurjant, Harmanpreet, Varun and Sumit have played during the 2017 Asia Cup and Hockey World League final, the upcoming Commonwealth Games will be crucial keeping in mind the Asian Games and World Cup this year.
With no one guaranteed a spot in the next tournament, they will need to perform and cement their spot in the side. This is a big test for Mandeep who was a part the squad that traveled to New Zealand in January.
According to former India coach, Joaquim Carvalho, feels the platform is apt for the youngster to prove their mettle.
“There will be pressure because these players are looking to cement their spot in the side,” Carvalho said. “Right now a lot of youngsters are getting a chance at the senior level which is a good thing for Indian hockey. Plus if these players want to play the World Cup, Asian Games and the Olympic, they will need to prove their worth. But by winning the junior World Cup, they know what it takes to win a tournament,” he added.
While the team includes senior players like PR Sreejesh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Kothajit Singh, Manpreet Singh, Chinglensana Singh Kanjujam, SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh, Marijne has not shied away from using the younger players in key position during tight games. More of the same is expected at Gold Coast.
Former India player VR Raghunath, who represented India in the last edition of the CWG, feels that the youngsters have had enough time to play with the senior side to not feel the heat.
“This team has a proper mixture of junior World Cup players and senior players,” Raghunath told The Field. “There is Sreejesh, Sunil, Manpreet, Kothajhit who play for the senior side. They have been playing together for 15 months. There shouldn’t be added pressure on the youngsters because they have to play as a team,” he added.
Pressure to perform?
The youngsters feel this 15-month experience will hold them in good stead when the pressure rises at Gold Coast. “Everyone has to perform,” says Gurjant. “We have played England and Australia and now we are their level as well,” he added.
According to Varun, the guidance of senior players has always helped lift the pressure on them. “Pressure is always on and this is a big tournament which we want to win. The coach has taught us how to handle pressure as well during the camp. Plus the senior players also guide us. We are learning from them,” said Varun.
With India winning silver in the previous two editions and having never won gold in the Commonwealth Games, the influx of these youngsters might be a move in the right direction.
“Perform well and win gold,” that is the message says Gurjant.
Given their past experience of playing in senior level tournaments, not repeating the same mistakes is what these youngsters are focusing on. “I want to score goals this time. Last tournament, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, the goals were less and we were disappointed. This time I want to change that,” said Varun.
Penalty corner conversions are the need of the hour and Harmanpreet is looking to make them count this around.
“Aim is winning the gold medal. As a defender I will try and not repeat my mistakes that occurred in the previous tournaments. I will also try and convert penalty corners that come my way this time,” said Harmanpreet.
Raghunath feels that with Rupinder in the squad, penalty corners conversions will improve. “Rupinder and Harmanpreet are India’s top two PC experts. Amit Rohidas is the third option that we have. So we have covered all the basics, now it is about netting them,” said Raghunath.
Beating rivals Pakistan early on will set the tone for the rest of the tournament. If they do so with the younger lot leading the way, the win will only be sweeter.