Akashdeep's resurgence, Pathak's growing stature: Talking points before Hockey World Cup
Hockey World Cup: The Indian men's hockey team have found a few new heroes recently, but have two big problems - PCs and discipline.
India took a major step in their preparations for the Hockey World Cup by bringing two foreign coaches onboard to work on goalkeeping and drag flicking. This can strengthen India's penalty corner game, something that has been a problem in recent times due to over-reliance on captain Harmanpreet Singh.
The team have found a few new heroes recently, but still have two big problems - PCs and discipline.
"Australia is one of the top contenders for the World Cup and playing against them will definitely help us in the lead-up to the tournament," Harmanpreet had told HI ahead of the 1-4 defeat on the tour of Australia earlier this month.
While the series showed that there had been several areas of improvement and some areas that still need ironing out, the biggest change was in the attitude of the players. Here's a look at a few major talking points for the Indian team one month ahead of the World Cup:
Akashdeep Singh's resurgence
One recent selection that raised eyebrows was Akashdeep Singh. Fans had been calling for him to be dropped for quite some time because of his performances. Akashdeep has been a shadow of himself in recent times and his performance levels dipped to alarming levels. His role in the team changed too. He was being deployed in a midfield role, which was not suitable to his style of play.
Australia, however, has always been a happy hunting ground for Akashdeep Singh. He was the top goal scorer in the 2014 test series in Perth and this time too, he showed glimpses of his brilliance. He was sharp on the field, was always available for the ball and was able to find goalscoring opportunities which other Indian players could not see.
Yuvraj Walmiki had told The Bridge, "Akashdeep is such a type of player that if you give him the ball near the striking circle, he will get you a goal."
Akashdeep did exactly that against Australia, reversing the clock and leaving fans in awe with his four goals in the series.
Change in attitude
The biggest positive from the Australia tour, however, was the visible change in attitude of Indian players.
Earlier, India used to suffer from big-game jitters. Be it Commonwealth Games or Olympics, India's defeat to Australia has always been taken to be a foregone conclusion. While the series result was in Australia's favours, how India did not give up was encouraging.
Earlier, when the Indian team would go 0-2 down, there used to be chaos on the field. Players would lose their focus, forget their tactics and would just try to play catch-up. Mistakes would start creeping in.
But in the recent Australia series, going a goal or two down has usually meant that the team would play harder, faster and more attacking. The intensity of attacks would increase and the players would fight for every ball. The midfield and defence would put in an extra shift to try and win the ball back.
The result was evident - out of the five games played, there were just two where the margin of defeat was high. India consistently scored 4 goals in all but one match. They would hit back as soon as Australia scored, and they made it difficult for Australia to execute their free-flowing game.
Indian coach Graham Reid said the 17 goals scored by the Indian team was the major highlight of the test series despite the series defeat.
The growing stature of Krishan Pathak
While the rest of the team was celebrating India's first Olympics medal win in 41 years, for Krishan Pathak, something was missing. Pathak was named among the standbys for the Olympics and he did not play any game for India. However, since the end of the Olympics, Pathak has turned over a new leaf and has challenged Sreejesh to become India's first-choice keeper.
Just like in the Pro League, Pathak shone through in the series against Australia, making several crucial saves that kept Australia. Before the current Pro League season, a lot of questions had been raised about his performance, especially his range. He was regularly beaten due to his range, especially in penalty corners.
He overcame this issue by working on his positioning. Now faster and better at covering angles, he was a problem for Australia's penalty conversion rate. A total of 37 PCs were conceded by India through the series.
Pathak was impressive in post-game practice shootouts too, which could help him stake his claim as the number-one goalkeeper for the Indian team.
Pathak credits his success to the incumbent Sreejesh. In October, Pathak had said about his senior: "Sreejesh is constantly helping me with my technique and how to deal with pressure situations. It helps me become a better player. I do feel the pressure to perform at the same high standard as him, but I take it positively and use it as motivation."
Is it finally time for the mentee to take over the mantle from the mentor and become India's first-choice goalkeeper?
India's penalty corner back-up
Harmanpreet Singh was India's top scorer on the Australia tour, scoring 5 of 17 goals. He has cemented his place as the best penalty corner specialist in the team, but the concern has been on his backup.
India went to Australia with five penalty corner experts - Harmanpreet, Jugraj Singh, Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas and Nilam Sanjeep Xess. However, apart from Harmanpreet Singh, no other penalty corner specialist scored a single goal.
Hockey has changed a lot in the last few years and banking on just one penalty corner expert is an incautious approach. Since Rupinder Pal Singh's retirement, the Indian captain has been left alone in PCs.
One thing that can adversely affect India's chances in the World Cup more than the lack of a second penalty corner expert is disciplinary problems on the field.
For some time now, we have seen the Indian team racking up silly cards and going a player down at crucial junctures. In the Commonwealth Games, where India's poor disciplinary record saw three goals being pumped in by England in the final quarter in a 4-4 draw. Overall, India conceded 9 cards, out of which 4 were yellow.
This issue showed up in the Australia series as well. In 5 matches, India got 9 cards, two of them being yellow cards. There were 4 instances where India conceded a goal within a couple of minutes of getting one of their players carded.
With days to go for the World Cup, one can just hope Graham Reid can help the players understand the importance of discipline.