Forget the Commonwealth Games; that chapter is over. And after much din over player selection, tactics and unnecessary attitude, Indian hockey has taken a step forward with a team that reflects the mindset of the new coach Harendra Singh. It’s been relatively quiet since he took over, but in the options process where former captain and midfielder Sardar Singh makes a comeback; two notable inclusions are Birendra Lakra and Surender Kumar. The other conspicuous omissions are Rupinder Pal Singh, reserve goalkeeper Suraj Karkera, Gurjant Singh, Kothajit Singh, Sumit and Lalit Upadhyay.
Of the chosen few, Vivek Sagar Prasad’s name stands out as someone who copped quite a bit of criticism, most of it based on a probable ‘too early inclusion’ into the national team. But for the selection committee that brought him into the CWG team, it would be an endorsement of Harendra’s belief that Vivek has a ‘bright future and does deserve a second chance’. In fact, Harendra said, “He did well in the camp and let’s not block his progress.”
Coming down to the Champions Trophy, an important pit stop on the way to the Asian Games and the World Cup, Harendra speaks about form, fitness and the hunger to wear India colours. He doesn’t beat around the bush when asked whether this Champions Trophy team reflects his philosophy on team selection, his belief in the outliers and whether this is a precursor to what we might expect when AG and WC teams are announced.
“I don’t believe in experimentation,” he says. “Players need mental stability to be able to understand and perform. You cannot keep a player out of the team and ask him to keep performing in the camp. The formula is simple and I believe that’s the way it is across the world — players who are in form will be selected and that will be the test at the Champions Trophy.”
Harendra is also clear that any dip in form will not be tolerated and that there is a ‘thin line’ between the ones outside and the 18 selected. “Let nobody take their spots for granted,” he adds. Pushed a little further, he adds, “If these boys perform, well, they should play the Asian Games.” But exhorts, “Let’s not get too ahead and ensure that the team performs and reaches the Champions Trophy podium.”
On the inclusion of Birendra Lakra and Surender Kumar, both out of the CWG team and now back in, he says form was the key factor. He is very hopeful that Rupinder Pal Singh will find his way back into the squad. “He has to perform at 200 percent and then he is also a tested player and has performed in various tournaments,” says Harendra. “We need to give another opportunity to Lakra who hasn’t played after the HWL Finals.”
The national coach is most excited about the inclusion of Jarmanpreet Singh. “He had a wonderful domestic season and he was at par with the rest in the camp,” says Harendra on the Surjit Singh Academy-player. “What I like about him is that he can play all four positions in the defence — central, free, right and left defender. Mostly you see players get confined into zones but this boy has the skill and easily slips into different roles.”
It also brings us back to the point that without Rupinder Pal Singh, effectively, you have Harmanpreet Singh as the sole and only penalty corner (PC) convertor. In times when PCs decide the fate of a match, especially in the furiously, fast paced 3rd and 4th quarter, won’t that be a pressure zone for Harmanpreet and the team? The answer is a furious ‘No’.
“We have Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas, who have been doing well in the camp. So to say that we only have one is not true. Yes, they need to perform and that is what has been told to them. It’s a defender plus PC convertor role. So the responsibility is greater.” Harendra also thinks that with injures, not believing in the other two PC convertors spells danger.
Sardar Singh’s inclusion throws up the obvious query — if the selection committee didn’t want him at the HWL Finals, four-nation in New Zealand and the CWG, what did they suddenly see that they couldn’t earlier? Harendra doesn’t elaborate. “I am going by fitness and form of the player and what someone did in the past, doesn’t help anybody,” he says. “He strengthens the midfield and it is up to him and the others to make most of the Champions Trophy tournament.”
The word purge might be inappropriate, looking at the forward line, but with Gurjant Singh and Lalit Upadhyay out, it’s not surprising either. Gurjant played in the Junior World Cup under Harendra and Lalit’s play does define Harendra’s thinking about a player — skilful, cerebral and strong in the basics. “But there is only that many that can get into an 18-man squad,” he reasons.
With Ramandeep Singh and Sumit Kumar (jr) back into the team, it is but fair that Akashdeep Singh’s inclusion after a bad CWG would raise a few eyebrows. “He is a proven player and that one bad outing doesn’t mean that he couldn’t make his way back,” explains Harendra. “The entire group was in the camp and we picked players on the way they performed under training and we believe that a couple of players will always force their way in, looking at injuries, form and fitness, the rest core group will always be there.”
Harendra believes that the ones sitting outside are "not out of the team as players like Rupinder and Kothajit don’t need exposure anymore." The same explanation is for the dropping of Suraj Karkera who makes way for Krishan Bahadur Pathak. “Karkera has played in quite a few tournaments and done well,” he says. “So we thought let’s go with Pathak and let him understand the pressure of a Champions Trophy.” There is no doubt that India has good goalkeepers and the fight for the second spot will always be hotly contested.
It’s an important team selection, probably more important than even the CWG. With a change in management, there is pressure. But the team selection also reflects the way coach Harendra wants to move — faster hockey with a set of forwards that combine skill with speed. Akashdeep symbolises everything delightful about the sport with Sunil and Ramandeep using speed as weapons. In Dilpreet, Harendra has a forward who has a knack of being in the right spot while Sumit gives us a glimpse of what the future might hold. But the most interesting aspect would be to see Harendra bring back that poacher’s instinct in Mandeep Singh, who is too inconsistent and temperamental at the moment.
But it’s the midfield where most of the focus would lie. Manpreet Singh, who did expect to go as captain till the World Cup will hopefully breathe easy and get over the disappointment despite the fact that hockey captains do have a role but it’s the coach who calls the shots. Harendra needs an aggressive Manpreet who drives the central zone with the tactical mind of a Sardar and the overlapping pace of Chinglensana. Vivek can only flower in the company of Sardar and Manpreet and one believes that Harendra will play him more asking the youngster to drive into the opposition striking circle.
Harendra doesn’t want the team to be a participant. “Champions Trophy is the road to the Asian Games and the World Cup and we cannot take it lightly,” he says. “It’s the podium that is important. We also need to get that winning habit. I know the skill is there.”
Breda in Holland will see some fixes to the Indian team. Of late, there has been chaos; but Indian hockey has witnessed worse before. The challenge for Harendr, apart from winning, is to bring structure to that chaos.