The Harmanpreet Singh-captained Indian men’s hockey team must settle for ‘nothing but a convincing win’ over New Zealand in their 2022-23 FIH Pro League opener at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar. Handed the captain armband from regular skipper Manpreet Singh for the first four games of the 2022-23 edition, the Punjab lad would be keen to set a new performance benchmark not just as a player but as a leader of the group.
Harmanpreet has been in rollicking form this year both with his drag-flicks as well as with his nifty defending inside the ‘D’ and beyond. He has slammed 27 goals in 2022 and would look to enhance that goal-scoring tally. India would have happy 2021 Tokyo Olympics memories to fall back on when they pulled off a 3-2 win over the Black Sticks. New Zealand, who gave the 2021-22 FIH Pro League a miss, were far from spectacular at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, where they failed to make it to the semifinals – they were shocked by Scotland in a 5-5 draw and were pounded 2-7 by Australia – their lone 4-1 win over Pakistan was not enough to land them a podium finish opportunity.
The Black Sticks would look for some inspirational play from defender and captain Blair Tarrant, who brings so much to their side that is depleted with the absence of many regulars. Of course, New Zealand’s deep defence would miss the services of their most capped player – Shea McAleese, who had retired after the Tokyo Olympics. A lot would depend on Blair Tarrant and Kane Russell to blunt out the skilled Indian forwardline. Interestingly, the Black Sticks’ forwardline appears short on experience with the likes of Nick Wilson, Stephen Jenness, and Steve Edwards making themselves unavailable to focus on their professional careers. If that was not enough, Hugo Inglis, Black Sticks’ vice-captain at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and their top goal-scorer in that torney, has pulled out of the first four games owing to personal committments. But the recall of 34-year-old Simon Child to the national fold would provide them some firepower upfront – he along side the likes of Sam Lane, Sam Hiha, Jake Smith, and Kim Kingstone would need to step up their game and outwit the doughy Indian defence.
India coach Graham Reid was gone in for a relatively inexperienced forwardline minus the experienced duo of Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Kumar Upadhyay. Mandeep Singh would provide the ‘experience’ quotient upfront while the Punjab National Bank duo of Abhishek, and Sukhjeet Singh would look to enhance their reputation. Dilpreet Singh is another one who would use the opportunity to seal his World Cup spot amidst fierce competition for places in the side. Tamil Nadu youngster S. Karthi would also hope to build on his strong presence in the 2022 Asia Cup.
New Zealand have a shrewd coach in former South African international Greg Nicol, and the hosts would do well not to press the complacency button against a side that is rebuilding after the Olympics and looking to get their best combination going for the 2023 World Cup.