Harmanpreet Singh has fond memories of Malaysia. In his first trip to the South East Asian country back in 2014, the drag-flicker scored nine goals – all from penalty corners – in the Sultan of Johor Cup. A year later, in the junior Asia Cup, he returned with 15 goals while guiding India to the title. He returns to his favourite hunting ground again for the Azlan Shah Cup, this time hoping to repeat his exploits with the senior team as he looks to put pressure on senior team regulars VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh for a place in the Rio Olympics-bound squad.
And he isn’t the only one. Harmanpreet’s junior team captain Harjeet Singh too will be hoping to produce an eye-catching performance while goalkeeper Harjot Singh, who has been a passenger with the Indian team for the longest time, will be keen to prove he is a worthy back-up to first-choice custodian PR Sreejesh.
While the core of Indian squad for the Olympics looks settled, the battle for a few remaining places in the squad will most likely be settled in the Azlan Shah Cup, starting today, with coach Roelant Oltmans deciding to give youngsters an opportunity to challenge the established players while also giving the players who’ve been on the fringes of the squad a final chance to stake a claim for the positions in the squad.
So for once, India will enter a tournament without focusing merely on the end result. For them, the silver jubilee edition of the Azlan Shah Cup is more about getting the strategies and back-ups right rather than obsessing over top-of-the-podium finish.
The tournament, an annual fixture on the international hockey calendar, is traditionally used by the top nations as a platform to give their young players an opportunity as well as try out new combinations. Not India, though. They’ve always sent a full-strength team in the hope of winning the tournament (not surprisingly, India are the second-most successful nation in the tournament with five titles, with Australia being the best). A good performance often gave the team a false sense of achievement that would later be exposed against the top teams in bigger tournaments.
But for a change, India, too, will be experimenting. When Oltmans’ side begins its campaign against Japan on Wednesday, one can expect to see several new faces on the field for the Dutchman has decided to give quite a few new faces a run about, in the hope of widening the player pool and also keeping back-ups ready ahead of the Olympics, in case a first team regular picks up an injury.
Consequently, almost half-a-dozen players who were a part of the squad for World League Finals last December have been rested to give way for junior players who’ve been knocking on the door for some time now. So, over the next 10 days, the focus will be on youngsters like Harmanpreet, Harjeet and Harjot as much as on the likes of Sardar Singh, Manpreet Singh and SV Sunil.
It’s a massive perspective change, a sign perhaps of a team that isn’t afraid to lose if in the bargain the players learn a thing or two. “In the last two years, some of our senior players have played a lot of hockey. Players like Akashdeep Singh, Dharamveer Singh, Sreejesh have been suffering with small issues and we need to ensure they recover 100 per cent before the Olympics. So I wanted to rest them to ensure they are fresh for the Games,” Oltmans said. “It’s important to see certain players who we feel are getting closer to the senior players, how they perform in these circumstances.”
Three key positions
Although the team has shown some improvement in the last two years, there are still a few glaring deficiencies on both ends of the pitch which threaten to peg them back on the home stretch as they prepare for the Olympics.
Over-reliance on goalkeeper Sreejesh means there is still no back-up in case he suffers an injury. Harjot has been travelling with the squad consistently for the last 12 months but has been warming benches as Sreejesh produced one solid performance after another.
The reluctance of coaches to rest Sreejesh and give Harjot a chance meant that the 22-year-old still does not have enough experience of playing in crunch situations.
Even in Ipoh, he and youngster Akash Chikte will be dividing responsibilities but one assumes this will be the last big chance for Harjot to win the confidence of coaching staff and prove he is a worthy back-up.
“Sreejesh has shown he is number one, he is a great goalkeeper. But you never know what happens to Sreejesh, if he gets injured between now and the Olympics. So we need another goalkeeper ready to replace him,” Oltmans said. “I have brought with me two keepers – Harjot and Akash and both will play the in the tournament for sure. These guys need experience and that’s why they are here. They will have to show me where they are (in terms of development) at this moment in time.”
Back in the World League, India gave a good account of themselves in maintaining a solid defensive structure. Sreejesh’s presence along with a well-settled defence and midfield has helped of course, but the paucity of goals – both field as well as from penalty corners – is another area of concern.
“They have to score goals and they showed they can against Holland but they need to do it consistently. But the understanding of each other in the game is essential,” Oltmans said.
Mandeep Singh, who has been on the fringes of the national team for quite some time, has a chance make an impression after he was included in place of an in-form Akashdeep Singh, who has been rested.
Raghunath and Rupinderpal have been inconsistent from set-piece situations, prompting Oltmans to give a young Harmanpreet an opportunity. The youngster can put a lot of pressure on the veteran duo if he continues his romance with Malaysia. “He is a very good one. It’s a good opportunity for him to show his ability here. In the end, it’s all about consistency.”
The back-up men
Roelant Oltmans is using this as an opportunity to build his bench strength. Here are some players who will aim to put pressure on seniors by producing eye-catching performances:
He has been a passenger for the longest time, travelling with the team only to warm the benches while first-choice goalkeeper PR Sreejesh churned out one solid performance after the other. Harjot hasn’t got enough playing time in the last two years. But with Sreejesh rested for this tournament, the 22-year-old will be keen to show that he is a worthy back-up.
India’s conversion rate from penalty corner has been below average with Rupinderpal Singh and VR Raghunath lacking in consistency. Oltmans has been looking for options and has tried out Gurjinder Singh in the past as well. Harmanpreet (pic, left) has proven his mettle with the junior team, converting short corners at will. However, whether he can maintain the same rate against tougher opponents remains to be seen.
Junior team captain is seen as a natural leader and likes to play as a centre-half, just like Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh. Under Harjeet’s leadership, the Indian team won the junior Asia Cup last year. During that campaign, he showed the penchant of scoring vital goals – a trait that might come in handy with senior team. With some decent performances, he can put the likes of Dharamveer Singh and Devinder Walmiki under pressure but the challenge for him will be to adapt to the pace of senior level hockey.
Goalkeepers: Harjot Singh, Akash Chikte; Defenders: Rupinder Pal Singh, Jasjit Singh Kular, Kothajit Singh, Surender Singh, Harmanpreet Singh; Midfielders: Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh, Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, SK Uthappa, Harjeet Singh; Forwards: Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, SV Sunil, Ramandeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah.