There is a statement that the Indian men’s hockey team coach Harendra Singh makes before most of their campaigns. It has, kind of, become his signature: “I never go to a tournament to participate. I go there to win it.”
The same sentiment has radiated at several moments in Breda, Netherlands, during the Champions Trophy, where India have beaten Pakistan and Olympic champions Argentina in their first two matches to sit on top of the table.
When Harmanpreet Singh scored the first of India’s two goals against Argentina, the camera panned towards the Indian dugout. Harendra went straight to Chris Ciriello and high-fived his famous tactical analyst. One of their plans had clicked and Argentina were under pressure.
In the tournament’s inaugural match, India were leading Pakistan 1-0 at the end of third quarter. The tactical battle between Roelant Oltmans, who is now Pakistan coach, and Harendra was on. Both were together in the dug-out when India won the 2016 junior men’s World Cup, but are now leading opposition camps of hockey’s fiercest rivals.
“Pass, run, pass, run, pass, run,” Harendra said, standing inside the huddle. The tactician in him had spotted that Pakistan players, nowhere close to India’s fitness levels, were getting tired.
India scored three goals in the last five minutes of the match and won 4-0.
Harendra is modest while talking about the fine-tuning that looks to be changing India’s fortunes after an upsetting fourth-place finish at the Commonwealth Games.
“Thode combinations badle hain bas, baki soch to change kiya hai (I just tweaked a few combinations and changed the thought process),” he said. “We have spent enough days as No 6. It’s now time to move into the top four.”
Big structural change
The Indian think-tank had initiated a major tactical and technical change even before flying to the Netherlands. Sardar Singh was not only brought back into the squad but also re-instated as the central playmaker, ending his days as the free man in defence.
The move has allowed India to have one quality midfielder – Sardar or Manpreet Singh – marshalling troops from the centre at all times. It has taken some burden off Manpreet’s game that was clearly affected at the CWG save for a few moments of brilliance.
The selection also pays off big time in crisis situations, like in the match against Argentina when Manpreet got hit in the first quarter and spent a lot of time on the bench so as to not aggravate his injury. To bank on the young Vivek Sagar Prasad as playmaker for a long period against top sides could have cost them. But this time, unlike the CWG, India had Sardar.
A 2-2 result at the CWG was unfair to the gap India have created between them and their traditional rivals, who are now ranked 13th. But at Breda, India were ahead of Pakistan on more than one count.
The superior fitness of Indian players was distinctly evident, but that also owes to the strict substitution norms put in place by Harendra, Ciriello and assistant coach Jugraj Singh.
“Our focus is on keeping as many fresh legs on the field as possible,” said Harendra. “The energy can’t drop, so we ensure there is no mess-up with the rolling-substitution roster.”
As a result, Indian forwards fell back better to be the first line of defence whenever they lost possession at turnovers. This tactic blunted Pakistan’s counter-attacks.
It was possibly due to Pakistan’s not-so-adequate fitness that India also predicted their long-ball slaps into the striking circle. The defence was structured accordingly, with at least two men deep in the circle to intercept.
Plus, a noteworthy change in the Indian defence, which was without Rupinder Pal Singh but with the dependable Birender Lakra, was the intent to keep possession and build after tackles/interceptions instead of clearing the lines.
“I will give credit to our physical trainer Robin [Arkell] and the collective decisions taken by the think-tank of Ciriello, Jugraj and myself,” said Harendra.
Catching Argentina by surprise
India lost the formidable Ramandeep Singh before the match to an injury. He was on crutches and has now been ruled out for the rest of the tournament.
India decided to disturb the formation of the Olympic champions by playing the half-line slightly ahead and using Lalit Upadhyay as the flying forward, while the rest played a little withdrawn.
But the major threat was always Gonzalo Peillat and his drag-flick prowess. To India’s worry, Argentina got three consecutive penalty corners but Peillat missed, with two Indian rushers cutting his angles and PR Sreejesh coming up with a big save.
India kept the Argentineans guessing. It’s important to think out of the box at this level, said Harendra. “We can’t be predictable, we need to keep the opponents guessing and I try to bring in a surprise element to do that,” he said, adding that he makes sure to not compromise on his team’s attacking nature at the same time.
“I never step back from playing to our strength. By playing attacking hockey is how we ruled the world and we can do it again by playing the same brand of hockey,” the coach said.
After Ramandeep’s injury, India will play the rest of the tournament with 17 players, which will require them to think further on their feet and keep alternative plans ready.
With their nemesis Australia being their next opponents on Wednesday, followed by Belgium and hosts Netherlands, India’s ruthlessness needs to come to the fore.
The visitors are in good space, though, going into the business end of the tournament. The two wins not only give them a top spot with six points but also a goal difference of +5, which could prove vital in the end.
“I am taking it as a four-nations tournament now with three big matches coming up,” Harendra said. “It’s now character test of 17 players.”
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