The historic bronze medal win at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics was just what the doctor ordered for Indian men’s hockey – the effort made hockey world sit up and take notice of them and accompanied by a realization that world hockey order is poised for a change! Of course, coach Graham Reid and selectors took a call to test out their bench strength and kept rotating the players, which did took out some of the competitiveness of the Blueshirts who had to settle for bronze medal wins at both the 2021 Asian Champions Trophy and 2022 Asia Cup. Experimentation continued in the FIH Pro League as well but barring the Asia Cup, it was also ensured the balance of the side was not disturbed. Bronze medals or third place finishes in three tourneys – 2021 Asian Champions Trophy, 2022 Asia Cup and 2022 FIH Pro League indicate one thing – the Olympic bronze was clearly no flash in the pan. The Graham Reid-coached Indian team have indeed arrived with a bang on the international stage and not side even the top sides can afford to treat the Blueshirts as pushovers.
Like any international side, there will be improvement areas to work on and it is a never-ending thing but by and large the Indian men’s team have shown that they can want to considered as a world-beater on a consistent basis. If we take out the 0-5 defeat to France and 3-5 loss to Spain, Indian men haven’t look intimidating or made to struggle against the opposition. The manner which they fought tooth and nail against Olympic and world champions Belgium in the Pro League does give a fair assessment of the fact that this team have come up in leaps and bounds since their 2-5 Olympic semifinal loss to the Red Lions.
And the biggest find of the team has been the ‘unselfish streak’ among the forwardline. The opening goal scored by Shamsher Singh against Belgium in the first leg tie speaks for itself – what a combined effort it where Lalit Upadhyay did the spadework and Abhishek joined in and set up Shamsher. One saw a similar collective team effort in India’s first goal against Belgium in the second leg, where Lalit Upadhyay was at it again combining with Gurjant Singh to set up Abhishek for India’s opening goal. Abhishek has emerged as India’s go-to-man in the forwardline and look a great long-term prospect. His individual skills as well as passing play have been a treat to watch. Dilpreet Singh and Mandeep Singh have come to the party when needed alongside Lalit Upadhyay.
Manpreet Singh after an indifferent showing in the initial stages of the Pro League, came into his own, asserting his presence in the midfield. Vivek Sagar Prasad, Hardik Singh Nilakanta Sharma and Shamsher Singh have provided great support not just in midfield but also upfront. PR Sreejesh has been solid as usual in the Indian goal and the deep defence comprising Amit Rohidas, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Jarmanpreet Singh and Jugraj Singh give a side a formidable look. Jarmanpreet Singh appears to have a matured beyond his age – his trademark slap pass is disturbing for the opposition – he is a true team player who can essay any role, even scoring goals – one he scored against Belgium after Jugraj Singh sold a dummy.
The Indian men’s hockey team is fast narrowing the gap with the likes of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and once Australia returns to international action at the upcoming Commonwealth Games, we would know how they handle the Kookaburras. This team have never won the Commonwealth Games gold medal but if their Pro League performance is any reading, they can surprise many, including Australia. They must believe that a gold medal finish in Birimingham is very much within their grasp if they play to their full potential. If they can trouble Belgium and Netherlands, why not Australia?