Hockey Pro League: India beat Australia again to add to feel-good factor after World Cup debacle

In the cycle of emotions that hockey evokes, India has once again reached the stage of hope. Flirting with optimism is fraught with risk since it almost always ends with a stab in the heart but for hockey tragics, it is tough not to get carried away in the wave of optimism. Especially when a team that looked out of its depth a couple of months ago gets its act together and puts on a show.

FIH Pro League results always come with caveats since teams, including India, seldom field full-strength sides. At Rourkela this last week, all three nations used the mini-tournament to test combinations heading into the Olympic cycle. So, India’s unbeaten run against world champions Germany and bogey team Australia, whom they held to a 2-2 draw on Wednesday (winning the tie-breakers 5-4), should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Beyond providing encouraging results, though, what interim coach David John and assistants Shivendra Singh and BJ Kariappa have done is provide incoming coach Craig Fulton with a blueprint of sorts.

Based on performances before and after the World Cup, it can be concluded that the debacle was mostly down to three factors: botched-up team selection, lack of communication on the field, and poor fitness levels. Unless of course, there is more to it than what meets the eye – why most of the seniors did not take penalties during the tie-breaker which India lost to New Zealand remains a mystery.

India will hope to begin the Fulton era in the same fearless and adventurous manner in which they played over the last week in Rourkela. Fulton, who is expected to take charge in a couple of weeks, will come with his own ideas but the South African would have scribbled some notes.

Most prominent would be the performances of young players like goalkeeper Pawan as well as forwards Selvam Karthi and Sukhjeet Singh. They seem to have provided the coaching staff with options which weren’t always obvious until the recent past.

Pawan has presented himself as a reliable back-up to Krishan Pathak and PR Sreejesh, who continues to defy age and remain valuable with his on-field inputs as well as shot-stopping abilities, especially in tie-breakers where he was India’s hero once again.

On the other end of the pitch, Sukhjeet has showcased the skills and presence of mind (his remarkable 360-degree turn to score the second goal on Wednesday is a case in point) that can only improve with more game-time. Karthi, on the other hand, has a great eye for goal and the ability to pop up at the right place inside the ‘D’. These attributes, with experience, can turn him into the poacher India badly needs.

Thinking out of the box

The utilisation of Hardik Singh and Manpreet Singh in different roles than they usually play is another eye-catching takeaway from these four games. Hardik is turning into a player that keeps India ticking and the move to play him through the centre, instead of on the wings as he did at the World Cup, has added heft to the midfield that got rolled over cheaply. The repositioning of Manpreet, the team’s most-capped player, in defence has instilled a sense of calmness in the backline that was prone to mistakes. It’s something Fulton might be tempted to continue when he takes over.

And of course, the inclusion of Jugraj Singh as an additional drag-flicker instead of going in with just one set-piece specialist in Harmanpreet Singh, seems such an obvious decision that one wonders why former coach Graham Reid did not go for it. The move to have two flickers gave the team variety during penalty corners and also took some pressure off Harmanpreet – for instance, when the captain missed a penalty stroke in the first match against Germany, Jugraj stepped up in the second game and converted.

The two castles on top of the ‘D’ during penalty corners also kept opponents guessing, unlike in the World Cup where the rushers could conveniently close down Harmanpreet’s angles since he was the only drag-flicking choice.

These, more than the match results, will be the key gains for India in their bid to reclaim the Asian Games gold medal later this year and seal qualification for the Paris Olympics.

The challenge for Fulton, who comes with a great reputation for having worked wonders with Ireland and Belgium, will be to make sure the team continues playing with the same intensity in big matches. That will also depend on how quickly India – who were among the fittest sides in the world until not too long ago – get back to their peak shape. For that, Hockey India will have to look for a fitness expert as carefully as they did for the chief coach.

The bigger challenge will be to get rid of the choking habit and get players to execute their skills under pressure. Reid, after India lost to New Zealand in the World Cup, underlined the need to have a mental trainer with the team full-time to get over that barrier.

In the larger scheme of things, these Pro League results will count for nothing if the players underperform in big games. These wins, however, will provide a solid ground for the new coach to work on. After a winter of discontent, this is a spring of hope for India.

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