Hockey World Cup: Bold team selections underline India's ambition to end 47-year wait
The inclusions of Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Vivek Sagar Prasad and local boy Nilam Sanjeep Xess show how India are not afraid to take gambles as they look to win their first Hockey World Cup medal since 1975.
When India hosts the Men's Hockey World Cup from January 13- in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, the expectation will be to end a 47-year wait for a medal.
Last year, India ended a four-decade-long wait for an Olympic medal. On the back of that success, hopes have risen that the hockey team could once again scale the peaks at the World Cup last reached in the 1970s. India won the WC beating Pakistan in the final in 1975.
There was an early Christmas gift for Indian hockey fans last when the final 18-man squad was announced, showing some brave calls made by coach Graham Reid.
Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Vivek Sagar Prasad, both of whom have been nursing long-term injuries, were included in the team at the expense of Dilpreet Singh and Gurjant Singh. Rourkela's local boy Nilam Sanjeep Xess also got a call-up.
Harmanpreet Singh was rewarded with the captaincy for his great form, replacing Manpreet Singh. Amit Rohidas, considered among the best first rushers in the game, was named the vice-captain. This is a role Rohidas has been groomed for in recent months.
Jugraj Singh, who recently became Harmanpreet Singh's number two, was named among the two reserves. Rajkumar Pal was the other reserve.
With Indian hockey, the expectations are always high and this time too things are no different. India's bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics has increased the stakes for a medal at the World Cup.
Ranked 5th in FIH World Rankings, India's target would be to at least enter the semifinals - something they have failed to do since the title win in 1975.
India's World Cup record hasn't been great since then. The last World Cup campaign ended in the quarterfinals when they lost 1-2 against the eventual runners-up The Netherlands. While it is unlikely to be a walk in the park, missing out on the semi-finals will be considered a failure this time.
India are placed in Group D along with England, Spain, and Wales. India must aim for a top-place finish for a relatively easy fixture in the quarterfinals.
Reigning champions Belgium, who are also the Olympic gold medallists, world No. 1 Australia and The Netherlands, who are aiming to win their fourth title, are the biggest pre-tournament favourites. India would be looking to avoid them in the quarters.
India's recent form has been mixed. While the results have not gone India's way in the Pro League or the Australian tour, there has been a lot of appreciation for the way India played.
The temperament has changed. The team looks fitter, more tactically sound. Akashdeep's return to form has also instilled considerable confidence.
Poor discipline, a problem which has built up over a couple of years, and the inability to find a decent partner for Harmanpreet Singh for penalty corners are the primary concerns ahead of the World Cup.
Coach Graham Reid continues to enjoy goodwill in the Indian hockey community. Reid is known to make some bold moves with his team selections, and he has done the same for the World Cup.
Including Nilam Xess in the squad is similar to what he had done during the Olympics when he brought in Samsher Singh. He has also taken a gamble by bringing in Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Vivek Sagar Prasad, who are far away from match fitness. However, both delivered for him in the Olympics, and he has shown his faith by selecting them for the World Cup.
Reid has remained optimistic about India's chances despite the questions over discipline and penalty corner conversion.
"We have had a great preparation over the last two months, including a home Pro League series and a very tough tour to Australia against the World's No.1. We are looking forward to getting to Odisha and putting the finishing touches to our preparations for what will be an exciting and challenging tournament ahead," he said to Hockey India on the team selection.
Harmanpreet Singh, without a doubt.
The captain has been in top form, scoring the most international goals in the calendar year (33) and has also shown great maturity while defending. His exploits also got him the prestigious FIH Player of the Year award in 2022.
Getting the captaincy for the Australian tour added to his stature. In his new role, he has become more confident and has led the team with great poise. A lot of India's World Cup hopes depend on how Harmanpreet Singh plays.
In terms of his captaincy too, anything less than a semi-final finish will probably be seen as a failure.
Vivek Sagar Prasad, in all probability.
Prasad has had mixed fortunes with the Indian team. He has missed a lot of hockey due to injuries but whenever he is on the field, and in form, he brings in another dimension to the Indian team. He has good vision, is not afraid to take on defenders and supports well in defence. He makes a return to the squad after a long absence.
Despite his young age, he is one of those smart players who can change the game. The 22-year-old will look to repay the faith shown in him by the coach.
The most important question for the Indian team remains the penalty corner conversion rate. Since Rupinder Pal Singh's retirement, India has failed to find a second penalty corner expert who can share the workload and take some pressure off Harmanpreet.
Even coach Graham Reid has concerns about this. "The tough part is when Harmanpreet is off, who is the next person?" he said to TOI.
Goalkeepers: Krishan Bahadur Pathak, PR Sreejesh
Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh (captain), Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas (vice captain), Nilam Sanjeep Xess
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Shamsher Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Akashdeep Singh
Forwards: Mandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Abhishek, Sukhjeet Singh
Alternate players: Rajkumar Pal, Jugraj Singh
Head coach: Graham Reid