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"The hand of Graham at work" - Experts look back at India's unfinished campaign at Hockey Pro League

The hand of Graham at work - Experts look back at Indias unfinished campaign at Hockey Pro League

Subhashish Majumdar

Published: 21 July 2020 5:23 AM GMT

After toying with less-than-formidable opposition all through 2019 thanks to Hockey India's decision to stay away from the inaugural Pro League, Graham Reid's boys were expected to struggle against the big teams after hopping on to the HPL bandwagon in 2020.

Contrary to expectations, however, the feisty Indians began by humbling mighty Netherlands in the first leg of the Pro League opener before winning the shootout in the second.

It was clear from the opening encounter that depth in the ranks which was integral to success in the gruelling tournament was never going to be a problem for the Indians.

The boisterous crowd at the Kalinga Stadium went rapturous as comeback man Rupinder Pal Singh scored a PC brace in the first leg against the Dutch and sounded the warning bells with a third goal in the second.

Young Raj Kumar Pal swerved and shimmied with speed and skill against the Aussies while Rupinder got even better as the tournament progressed - Harmanpreet Singh too sounded the boards with his trademark drag flick while the strikers combined seamlessly.

Indian vs Belgium (Image: Hockey India) Indian vs Belgium (Image: Hockey India)

It was nothing short of a dream run as Manpreet Singh and co. held their nerves to beat World Champions Belgium thanks to the brilliance of goalkeepers Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak in the first encounter before losing the second despite an arguably superior show.

The kookaburras were next in line and although the Pro League champions won the first encounter narrowly, the Indians came back strongly to win a penalty shootout against a side they have rarely won against in the recent or remote past.

Sceptics wondered how the ebullient Indians would perform in their away matches after having thrilled the home crowd against the big three of the hockey world at the Kalinga Stadium.

The question remains unanswered thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic which resulted in the Pro League schedule being interrupted, but Indian hockey fans dared to dream of a podium finish at the Tokyo Olympics following their teams inspired show in Bhubaneswar.

Just how significant was India’s performance given the fact that the Pro League was preparatory for the Olympics - and how will the postponement affect the team’s chances?

Indian men's hockey team against Australia at FIH Hockey Pro League 2020 (Source: Hockey India) Indian men's hockey team against Australia at FIH Hockey Pro League 2020 (Source: Hockey India)

The Bridge spoke to Siegfried Aikman, coach of the Japanese men's team and Max Caldas who guided the Dutch to a World Cup silver in 2018.

FIH master coach Aikman was of the opinion that the Indians were better prepared at the beginning of the year as compared to the opposition who were regrouping after the European club season.

"I think that India at the start of this Pro League season had the benefit of their fulltime program. They were very well prepared to start the Pro League while the other countries saw it as a possibility to become fit for the Olympics.”

“The European teams had just restarted their programs – and due to club activities, had little opportunity to prepare well. Their players were also exhausted by the full-time hockey program.”

“On the other hand, India was fit and well prepared and that’s where their consistency came from. The question is how the opponents will be when the Pro League restarts.”

“The players will certainly be more fresh and probably in better shape. At the moment, the Indian team is not camping. They will be out of camp for a long time and will have to regain fitness and shape.”

“If they can regain shape and fitness, they might have bridged the gap but I think that they still have a long way to go. They are definitely getting closer to the top countries and they are able to surprise them.”

India vs Netherlands India vs Netherlands (Image: Hockey India)

“When they achieve good results, people are not surprised anymore. For me, India is still in the second group but almost leading the group of challengers.”

The Dutch who ended up third in the inaugural edition of the Pro League faced India in the HPL 2020 opener but failed to earn any points against the hosts who they had defeated in the quarterfinals of Odisha 2018.

Max Caldas' boys, however, stormed back to beat the Spanish Red Sticks in both legs of their away encounter before winning a couple of shootouts against Argentina at Buenos Aires.

Caldas who won the FIH Coach of the Year award in 2014 believes that different Pro League teams were at various stages of preparation and the objectives too differed accordingly.

The former Argentinian international opined that while comparisons based on results alone are unwise, the Indians have emerged to be a force to reckon with ahead of the 2021 Olympics - and, that his former assistant in the Dutch camp is now weaving his magic as coach of the Indian men’s team.

"I think you should not compare India to other countries because you don't know at which moment of their preparation other teams are, what was their selection idea at that moment, or what was their goal for that series/leg of the HPL.”

“But you can see that India has gotten very good and will be a force to be reckoned with in 2021. You see the hand of Graham at work, for sure."

The Indians are currently fourth in the points table with ten points from six matches – one point behind the Dutch who have played just as many games.

The Belgians sit pretty on top of the heap with 14 points from six matches while the Australians are second having amassed the same number of points from eight matches.

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