The Indian men’s hockey team will launch their FIH Pro League campaign against world No 3 Netherlands in Bhubaneshwar on Saturday.
The Graham Reid-coached Indian side isn’t one of the favourite to win the league despite the overall improvement in their performance since the Australian took charge, but will look at the competition as a tune up for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
India and Netherlands will play two back-to-back matches at the Kalinga stadium over the weekend and the hosts are scheduled to face world champions Belgium (February 8-9) and Australia (February 22-23) before heading out for their away fixtures.
Reid made it clear that the opportunity to play the top-three ranked teams on home turf was an opportunity to not just test as many players in the elite group but also seek to improve the overall standard of their play ahead of the Olympics.
“We need to make as many new improvements as we can in the next seven months and for me, it is an opportunity to do that. We need to take every opportunity we get, grab as much learning as we can from each experience and apply to the next games that we play,” said the Australian after the team’s practice session on Friday.
India is making its debut in the Pro League after missing out on the inaugural season last year. When asked how the team would cope with playing back-to-back matches, Reid said his only suggestion to the team was to treat these matches as a semi-final and final of a major tournament and maintain the mental and physical fitness required to win these matches.
“We actually played Spain in weekend games on our recent tour to Europe and played well in both games,” he added.
Reid was in the Dutch dug-out when the two teams played each other in the World Cup quarter-final last year and knows the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents.
Skipper Manpreet Singh admitted that the team has been working a lot more on their overall fitness levels given the importance of being in their best shape till the Olympics. “In the last three weeks, we had to follow a given schedule which included workout at the gym and running as all were aware of how important the current year is for hockey. First, there is the Pro League in which we have to face good teams and then there is Olympics, therefore, the team has focused to improve fitness in less time,” he said.
The Indian team will welcome back midfielders Chinglensana Singh and Sumit, who were out with injuries, for the game against Netherlands and the coach will be keen to see how they fit in the system now.
Reid insisted that no team in the top 10 or 12 of world ranking can begin as favourite as the qualitative gap between teams is minuscule and the results depend on how well they played on the day.
“Every coach is always worried if you play someone in the top 10 - top 12 and that is the reality of hockey now. Some people always ask what has moved with the game and I think that the biggest thing is now anybody in the 10 - top 12 rank can beat another. To pretend that you are not worried about the result is not true,” said Reid.
Under Reid the Indian team has been playing aggressive and relentless hockey and that showed in their approach when they defeated Russia 11-3 on aggregate in the two-leg FIH Qualifiers in November last year.
The Australian insisted that his philosophy was to stay on the attack for the entire 60 minutes but said that it did not mean he likes to take unnecessary risks.
“I have spent too long with Ric Charlesworth to go out and play reckless hockey. I agree that I love to win and also like to play attacking hockey. But I don’t like taking ridiculous risks. The principle should be that you play the same in the first minute as you play in the last minute. I don’t believe in protecting a lead,” he added.
How well his team adapts to this philosophy against the world’s best teams would also be a good indicator of what one can expect from the Indian men’s team at Tokyo.
Netherland’s coach Max Caldas is also looking at the Pro League as preparation for Olympics.
“The players and combinations we wanted to test were experimented during the previous edition of Pro League. This edition we will have our most competitive team as this will be the stepping-stone for us to be the best at Tokyo,” he said.
India’s Pro League schedule:
January 18-19 – vs Netherlands (H)
February 8-9 – vs Belgium (H)
February 22-23 – vs Australia (H)
April 25-26 – vs Germany (A)
May 2-3 – vs Great Britain (A)
May 23-24 – vs New Zealand (H)
June 13-14 – vs Spain (A)