If there is one Indian team sport that has been able to stride with consistent success, it has to be the Indian men’s hockey team. Giving the top-ranked teams a run for their money, the Manpreet Singh brigade has been proving their worth trying to bring back the heydays for Indian hockey. And the results are evident — for the first time, they climb to world No 4 spot in the FIH rankings, courtesy: a victory over the World Champions Belgium in the first encounter at the FIH Hockey Pro League.
Notwithstanding a defeat to Belgium in the second encounter of the Pro League, the Indians walked off the Kalinga pitch with their heads held high. Defeating the Red Lions 2-1 speaks volumes about the tenacity of a team that looks quite capable now of making Pro League history.
Undoubtedly, the Indian team has gained a renewed vigour since the arrival of coach Graham Reid, the craftsman who is now entrusted to take the team to new heights. If someone makes a report card for Reid, he has passed with flying colours. If you go by the numbers, since Reid’s appointment, India has played 29 international matches, where they have won 22, lost four matches and drew 3 so far.
Before the Australian had come to the Indian shore, we were reeling under the challenges of conceding late goals. In Rio 2016, it was the case against the Netherlands, Germany and Canada.
The trend repeated during the Commonwealth Games 2018 against Pakistan, followed by the semifinal defeat against Malaysia at the Asian Games the same year. Most recently, it was at the 2019 Sultan Azlan Shah final, where South Korea equalised and won the tie in shootouts. Immediately after the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Reid took the charge of the Indian team in April 2019.
After the unceremonious sacking of Harendra Singh in January 2019, Australian hockey great Ric Charlesworth talked Reid into applying for the post of chief coach of the Indian national team. Reid was assistant to head coach Charlesworth for the Australian team for six years and when Charlesworth retired after winning the 2014 World Cup, Reid took up the job. Interestingly, Charlesworth also worked with Indian hockey as the men’s and women’s teams’ technical advisor for four months in 2008.
India, whose strategy had always relied upon attack, under the tenure of last few coaches, had started focussing on its defensive solidity. The attacking move started to look frail, where they were just trying to recycle the possession in midfield if there were no clear forward passes in play. Immediately after the Australian’s appointment, the emphasis shifted towards playing pressing hockey. The number of forward passes, lightning-quick transitions in the middle-third of the turf, enabled by moving the ball quickly in the opposition ‘D’, have reaped dividends, which acted as fundamental for India in their victory against Netherlands and Belgium.
There weren’t any major tournaments lined up for the Indian teams in 2019 and they mostly competed in bilateral series and one-off International Hockey Federation (FIH) events. In the FIH Series Finals in June, the Manpreet Singh-led side left no stone unturned and emerged victorious by thrashing South Africa 5-1 in the final to qualify for the FIH Olympic Qualifiers. The team then participated in the Tokyo Olympics test event in August involving hosts Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand. The Indian men again came out victorious, defeating the Black Sticks 5-0 in the summit clash.
Followed by Japan, the men in blue went on an exposure tour to Belgium to play five matches — three against reigning world champions Belgium and two against Spain. Here the coach introduced a new overseas training feature where the Indian team trained with the Dutch — a completely new concept for captain Manpreet Singh and his boys. The Manpreet-led side passed with flying colours beating Belgium 2-0, 2-1 and 5-1 and then vanquished Spain 6-1 and 5-1.
But the biggest test awaited them in the year-ending final round of Olympic Qualifiers where the team enjoyed a relatively easy outing, handing Russia an 11-3 drubbing on aggregate to seal their Tokyo tickets.
The Indian men’s hockey team’s biggest gain has so far been the emergence of some talented fresh faces. With no big tournaments lined up, India tested a number of youngsters under Reid and the move paid rich dividends, throwing up talent like Vivek Sagar Prasad, Hardik Singh and many more. Graham’s faith on the youngsters have grown as we could see him trying and testing them during the Belgian baptism of fire where Vivek produced a goal and debutant Raj Kumar Pal darted in and around the Belgian circle like an arrow surprising the defence with his speed and guile which allowed the senior strikers to move up unchallenged.
Coming from a culture where consistent performance at the highest level is considered paramount, Graham Reid has ensured that the Indian hockey team gives their best every minute they spend on the field. With him at the helm, a lot of emphases has been drawn on fitness — both mental and physical.
High-pressing style of hockey that Reid espouses requires his players to pressure opponents with tackles when they are in possession. The idea is simple: rush the opponent when they get the ball, so they don’t have the time to look up and pass to a teammate. Their fitness quotient was tested at a recent Yo-Yo Test, where six or seven Indian players — including Sumit and Mandeep Singh — touched the highest level of 23.8. Skipper Manpreet Singh reached 23.2. The Indian team’s minimum target for goalkeepers is 20 while for outfield players, the target is between 22-23.
For mental strength, Graham Reid relies upon an English Rugby Union coach’s Thinking Clearly Under Pressure (TCUP) method. Clearly, playing under pressure, India intensity did not dissipate in the second encounter against the Netherlands after a comprehensive win in the first.
Graham Reid’s boys displayed without a shadow of a doubt that the wins against the Dutch were no flash in the pan and that the team is clicking as a whole. Whether by accident or design, the Pro League schedule involves India playing the top three teams in the world one after the other at home and a similar result against Australia will do wonders for India’s campaign.
And going forward like this makes nothing seem impossible. Reids’ aggressive and cohesive Indian squad, which is making an early impression at the busy Pro League season, can pull off the biggest surprise package at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where it counts the most.