Two names were conspicuous by their absence in the Indian squad for the Hockey World Cup 2018 in Bhubaneswar: Rupinder Pal Singh and SV Sunil.
The duo wasn’t part of the 18-member squad announced by Hockey India with less than three weeks to go for the World Cup, slated to be played at the iconic Kalinga Stadium from November 28.
Rupinder and Sunil aren’t just two names. They are 400-plus games of experience. And, sure, the men in blue, especially after the retirement of Sardar Singh, will miss having the duo in their side.
Member of the selection committee BP Govinda told Scroll that Rupinder and Sunil were omitted from the side because “they weren’t 100% fit”.
Sunil suffered a ligament injury on his left knee on October 4 during India’s preparatory camp for the World Cup.
The 29-year-old will be gutted about not being able to play in the World Cup in front of his home crowd. Sunil, with over 60 goals in 250 games, might not be a prolific scorer. But his explosive pace upfront – matched not by many even in world hockey – has made him a regular member of the team over the years.
Rupinder Pal Singh, similarly, has been a lynchpin in Indian defence. At six-feet-four, he’s been a bulwark that attackers of the opposition have found difficult to pass through. His height enables him to stretch and steal the ball from the incoming attack.
But Rupinder’s USP isn’t his defence. It’s his drag-flicks that India will miss the most at the World Cup. India have several drag-flickers in the team but Rupinder and Harmanpreet Singh are the ones who are usually summoned during clutch penalty corners.
“Of course, they are big names. That’s why, despite injury concerns, they were included for the trials. But we discussed with the team management and the physios and they weren’t 100% fit. And, in an event like World Cup, if they get injured mid-tournament… we can’t take that risk,” said Govinda.
‘Best available combination’
Coach Harendra Singh said that the selection committee chose the “best available combination for the World Cup.”
“We had to make some tough decisions to select 18 out of a very strong pool of 34 players,” he said.
“The final 18 are a mix of experienced and youth and have been selected on the basis of their current form and fitness. These players have consistently shown their potential in the lead up to the showpiece event and I am confident India will put up a fighting performance.”
Eight of the 18 players in the squad have already won a World Cup (the 2016 Junior World Cup in Lucknow). And, most of the eight are already part of the core unit of the senior side. Harendra would count on his boys to deliver for him again.
Of course, the seniors of the side – the likes of PR Sreejesh and Birendra Lakra – will be there to guide them on the pitch. Every department has at least one experienced player to guide the rest.
Mix of youth and experience
PR Sreejesh has worked closely with Krishan Bahadur Pathak to get him ready for the big tournament. Even if he’s stepped down from captaincy, Sreejesh is a de-facto leader of the team He’s always yelling out instructions to the rest of the players. So, the team management would see that Sreejesh, who’s played in all the high-profile tournaments this year – Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Champions Trophy – doesn’t get burnt out.
Birendra Lakra’s return to the side has solidified the side’s defence, which has been incredible this year.
Captain Manpreet will be the sole leader of the midfield after the retirement of the great Sardar Signh. He’ll be the team’s playmaker. The youngsters around him should step up lest Manpreet getting overworked.
On several crucial moments in the tournaments earlier, the Indian attack has failed to spark a moment of brilliance when the team needed it desperately. They haven’t been at their best on the matches that have mattered the most.
In a year of big tournaments, India – ranked fifth in the world – have only managed to share the Asian Champions Trophy with Pakistan. But, as 2018 nears its end, the men in blue have a great chance at redemption in Bhubaneswar.