Sardar Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Birendra Lakra made an expected return to the India men’s hockey squad on Thursday for the Champions Trophy after months on the sidelines.

The trio had missed the cut for the Commonwealth Games. Sardar and Ramandeep last played for India at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in March. Lakra also returns to the squad for the first since the four Nations tournament in New Zealand in January.

With ex-coach Sjoerd Marijne opting for younger players, the senior pros had lost their spots in the team. However, with Harendra Singh coming on board, the policy seems to have been altered with the latter choosing to revert to his senior stars.

The trio were expected to make the cut after being picked in the 48-member national team camp held earlier this month.

While Marijne stressed on the importance of youth in the squad, Harendra has adopted a more balanced approach for the Champions Trophy. He has brought in experienced players like Sardar, Ramandeep and Briendra who can guide the youngsters in pressure situations.

Missing Rupinder raises questions 

The selection committee has, however, surprised everyone by dropping experinced defenders Rupinder Pal Singh and Kothajit out. This means that the defence will rely heavily on Harmanpreet and Birendra Lakra. However, Harmanpreet, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas have proved their worth in the past. Birendra has a point to prove and will have to be at his best if he is to cement his spot in the side for the Asian Games in August.

Debutant Jaramanpreet is the only new face in the team that will face the likes of Pakistan, Argentina, Australia, Belgium and Netherlands in the group stage.

While the Punjab player has been rewarded for the exceptional improvement, his inclusion ahead of Rupinder’s does raise doubts over whether the latter was dropped.

The officials have tried to clarify that it might have been done considering the hectic schedule of the team following the Champions Trophy, but there is no denying the fact that Rupinder had a disappointing CWG. He was slow on the ball and conceded many penalty corners against the team. Even his long balls were a cause of concern as they ended up finding the opponents on numerous occasions. As drag flicker, he failed to find the net even once while Harmanpreet stepped up to score half a dozen.

Harendra clearly thinks that Rupinder has to improve. He does not want one player to slow the entire squad down. Given the importance of the Champions Trophy and the upcoming Asian Games and World Cup, Rupinder should be a worried man right now.

By handing Punjab’s Jaramanpreet a place in the squad, Harendra is definitely trying out the youngster. The PSPB player was on the probables list of the junior World Cup squad coached under Harendra but had missed out from the final squad.

Harendra might also use Sardar in the defence from time to time with Manpreet leading the midfield, if required. Sardar was deployed as a defender during the Asia Cup last and given his experience, he can play as a floating defender.

Pressure on Akashdeep, Mandeep 

Harendra knows that India have struggled in front of goal. “There were basic problems in Gold Coast and despite circle penetration, shots on goal were few,” Harendra had said when he took over the squad.

CWG statistics

Attacking Circle Penetrations vs Pakistan: 26 (Pakistan has 14)

Attacking Circle Penetrations vs Wales: 26 (Wales had just 8)

Attacking Circle Penetrations vs Malaysia: 22 (Malaysia had 18)

Clearly finishing is a problem.

Among the strikers, Lalit Upadhyay and Gurjant Singh have been excluded as Ramandeep returns into the mix. Along with Akashdeep Singh, Sumit, Dilpreet Singh, SV Sunil and Mandeep Singh upfront, India is fielding a fast and experienced forward line.

Ramandeep’s exclusion from the Commonwealth Games squad had stunned many because he performed exceptionally well at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup scoring four goals, the highest by an Indian. He also creates plenty of goal scoring chances and can provide delightful assists in front of goal.

With SV Sunil also in the picture, one can expect a creative and structured attack from the duo, which wasn’t the case at the CWG. Quick and accurate passes with the aim of creating numerous chances to score is clearly on the cards.

But finishing it with a goal is what Harendra is working on clearly.

This is where Mandeep and Akashdeep have to step up or else they run the risk of losing their spot to the likes of Gurjant and Lalit in the future. The duo missed plenty of scoring opportunities during the CWG. And while it may surprise some that they were not dropped, it also shows that Harendra trusts their talent to come through at some point. However, they may be running out of time.

Sardar’s injection 

But Harendra’s biggest call while selecting his first squad after taking over was to bring back Sardar, who looked like going into oblivion after he was left out of the CWG squad.

During Marijne’s tenure, he was deployed as a defender in the Asia Cup. However, he was then dropped for the Hockey World league Final as well. He only returned to captain India for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup where India finished fifth. Marijne refused to pick him for the Commonwealth Games stating that “we need midfielders who can also score.” Clearly he didn’t fit in Marijne’s scheme of things.

Now with Harendra in charge, Sardar has got another chance to cement his spot in the team. However, making the cut wasn’t easy. “I am judging a player not on the past, but on his form and fitness. His selection in the team was done after watching him in training at the camp,” Harendra was quoted as saying by Mid-Day.

However, whether Sardar will don the role of a sweeper or play in the midfield is still to be seen. Given his experience, he can justify both roles. He can feed the forward line with sublime passes and can also intercept the ball when playing a defensive role. Harendra is looking for skillful and fast players. Sardar seems to fit the billing. However, he will have to perform exceptionally well. Period.

The squad looks strong on paper, but will they be a force to reckon with? Only time with tell. With the Champions Trophy being Harendra’s first test as coach, the taskmaster has to aim for a podium finish to set the tone for the Asian Games and World Cup which follow.