A couple of years ago, Dilpreet Singh was seen as the future of Indian hockey. He was sharp and skillful and was turning quite a few heads with his performances in the junior circuit. But he was found out on the biggest stage of all – the World Cup – and the selectors, who found him too raw for senior-level hockey, dropped the 19-year old from the squad. After spending 13 months in the wilderness, he is back where he thinks he belongs.
Like Dilpreet, Shamsher Singh, too, was convinced he had no future within the India set-up. The versatile midfielder watched his teammates win the junior 2016 World Cup from the sidelines (he was a standby), and has remained on the fringes ever since.
Rajkumar Pal was nowhere in the reckoning for a senior team berth till a few weeks ago. But after a few eye-catching performances with the junior team at Sultan of Johor Cup, the midfielder known for his wristy stick-work, is set to make his international debut this weekend.
The world champions are here. And, for once, India have not wheeled in the cannon.
Instead, the Indian team that will host all-conquering Belgium in Bhubaneswar for this weekend’s twin FIH Pro League matches is borderline experimental, with chief coach Graham Reid changing nearly half of his side that remained undefeated against the Netherlands last month.
It’s a tact not many Indian coaches have employed in the past, especially in an official FIH tournament at home, against the world champions and the current world number 1. But in an Olympic year, Reid is treating Pro League just the way it should be: a tune-up to Tokyo.
His initial plan was to play two different teams for the two games on a weekend to try out as many players as possible, but it now seems he will rotate the squad for every tie. So seven players in the 18-man squad, including veterans like SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh and Birendra Lakra, have made way for rookies such as Shamsher and Rajkumar. And like Dilpreet, striker Ramandeep Singh and defender Kothajit Singh – once playing 11 regulars – will hope to remind the coaching staff that they are still around.
It will be up to these players to match the high standards India set against the Netherlands last month. More than the scorelines in those two games – most coaches have insisted results are incidental this year – India’s style of play stood out.
In Reid’s first test against an opponent of high calibre, India were refreshingly positive. Reid lined-up his players in a 2-5-3 formation and by crowding the midfield, India were able to win a lot of battles in that area of the pitch and break Netherlands’ momentum. That helped the midfielders and forwards to launch quick breaks, and with a bunch of improved technical skills, they were able to constantly keep the Dutch on back foot. One of the hallmarks of India’s style in both those matches has been the team’s aggressive approach and played more forward passes rather than sideways or backwards. Reid doesn’t like playing conservative hockey and for once, the players delivered what the coach demanded.
Against Belgium, however, that will be a massive challenge. Reid has left the defence untouched, more or less. The challenge, however, will be bigger for the midfielders and forwards. Not just because of the new combinations, but also because of the quality of the opposition.
Unlike India, Belgium enter the twin ties with a very strong squad – they are here with all players who played, and won, the World Cup final at the same venue in December 2018. The same bunch went on to win the European Championship last year and finished runners-up in the 2019 Pro League, losing in the final to Australia. The Belgian team that’s here, led by Thomas Briels, is arguably the best in the world at the moment and also the firm favourites for the Olympic gold later this year.
India have struggled to deal with Belgium’s revolutionary zonal press system, combined with high-press and counter-attacking style. They are solid defensively – led in that department by goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch and defender Arthur van Doren – and boast of some of the best attacking players in the world. There are hardly any in chinks in their armour.
In contrast, India have seldom played two matches consistently at the same level. This weekend, it will be interesting to see, a) which Indian team actually turns up; and b) whether they can play all four quarters with the same intensity.
There were moments against the Netherlands when India let go of the initiative – India were particularly poor in the second quarter of both matches. It very nearly cost them but some of the veterans in the squad stood up and made themselves count when it was needed the most, especially in the second match when India were down by two goals.
Unlike the Netherlands, one can expect Belgium to be more ruthless in attack and stronger defensively. The likes of Dilpreet and Shamsher may have waited for long to get a chance. And there couldn’t be a tougher opponent for them to prove themselves.
India (rank: 5) vs Belgium (rank: 1) Live on Star Sports 2:, 5pm
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