Three back-to-back medals in the World Cup (bronze in 1971, silver in 1973, and gold in 1975), followed by a humongous 48-year podium finish absence – this particular statistic is something hosts and Olympic bronze medallists India would look to correct when they launch their World Cup campaign in Rourkela against Spain.
The sixth ranked Indians have never quite been able to put their best foot forward on previous occasions when they played in the World Cup at home – at the 1982 Bombay World Cup the national team finished fifth while settling for the sixth position at the 2018 Bhubaneshwar World Cup. But this time around there is a great deal of optimism and excitment about the Blueshirts gunning for glory in their own backyard. This is simply because the Graham Reid-coached Indian outfit have ‘done enough’ on the international stage in recent times, especially the Olympic bronze high to be a considered a team worthy of a podium finish in the World Cup.
The Harmanpreet Singh-captained side are richer with the experience of facing the world number one Australia over a five Test series in Adelaide close on the heels of the World Cup – an exposure most other teams would have ideally desired ahead of such a showpiece event. The Blueshirts have a wealth of experience with guys like Manpreet Singh, PR Sreejesh and Akashdeep Singh having collectively played more than 800 internationals.
Graham Reid would count a lot on the Mandeep Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Akashdeep Singh and the young Punjab National Bank duo of Abhishek and Sukhjeet Singh to deliver upfront – Akashdeep Singh – a natural centre-froward who have been deployed as a midfielder would look to build on his superb striking prowess in the Australia Test series in the World Cup. Mandeep Singh can be a lethal goal-poacher and he would be come up all guns blazings alongside Lalit Upadhyay. Abhishek has been one of the improved players in the side and his all-round skills would come in handy at the marquee event.
Skipper Harmanpreet Singh would be expected to deliver much more than just consistently firing home short corners – he is such a joy to watch in full flow – his deft tackling in crisis situations, overlapping runs, eye-catching defence-splitting slap passes can unsettle the best in the business. It is critical that the likes of Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar offer him required support in the deep defence alongside Surender Kumar, Jarmanpreet Singh and Nilam Sanjeep Xess as well as convert short corners when the captain is in the dugout as part of the rolling substitution exercise.
Midfield is where games are won or lost and India appears to be robust in this department with former skipper Manpreet Singh taking the lead alongside rapidly-improving duo of Shamsher Singh and Hardik Singh alongside persevering Nilakanta Sharma and under-rated Vivek Sagar Prasad. Like many major internaitonal tourneys he has been part of, PR Sreejesh would have to live upto th expectations of the home fans alongside Krishan Pathak.
There is not much to choose between India and Spain – at the 2022-23 Pro League in Bhubaneshwar India drew the Redsticks 2-2 in regulation time and went on to win the shootout 3-1 in the second leg after having lost the first leg 2-3 – even at the 2021-21 Pro League in Bhubaneshwar India won the first leg 5-4 riding on a final minute goal by Harmanpreet Singh but lost the second leg 3-5. At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, India pipped Spain 3-0.
The hosts must be wary of Marc Miralles (scored 6 times against India in last four games) and Pau Cunill (scored 4 times against India in last four games) , who have caused substantial damage from short corners in their recent meet-ups. The likes of Álvaro Iglesias and Enrique González both of whom play club hockey for Club de Campo alongside Joaquín Menini and Pepe Cunill provide a lot of solidity to the Spanish midfield and forwardline. Under celebrated coach Max Caldas, who has had great success as the Dutch women’s team coach, Spain are a steadily improving side after their 8th place finish at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
It would be even-stevens for sure and the team gleaning full points would be firmly placed in a tricky pool D featuring England and Wales. One hopes that India would maintain their first match winning record in World Cups at home – at the 1982 Bombay World Cup India prevailed over Malaysia 6-2, while they eased past South Africa 5-0 at the Bhubaneshwar 2018 World Cup in their tournament opener.