Updated: December 14, 2021 8:22:59 am
Manpreet Singh couldn’t stop smiling while reflecting how much life has changed for him since that historic August morning, when he led the Indian hockey team to its first Olympic medal in 41 years.
He now has a school named after him in his hometown Mithapur. He is the recipient of the country’s highest sporting honour, the Khel Ratna. Last month, his wife gave birth to their daughter. “It’s tough to express in words how much everything has changed,” Manpreet says.
Not just for him.
His teammate, drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh got married weeks after returning from Tokyo, where he’d scored a goal in India’s dramatic win over Germany in the bronze-medal match. Manpreet teased his deputy for being holed up at a university campus in Bhubaneswar for the national camp, days after getting hitched.
The smiles, the laughter and the banter captured the mood of the team that is still basking in the afterglow of Olympic success. Even as they continue to enjoy the honeymoon period, the rebuilding phase for the Paris Olympics cycle has begun.
It will reflect on Tuesday when India play their first match since the Games. They will take the field against South Korea in Dhaka in their opening match of the Asian Champions Trophy, which got delayed by several months due to the pandemic. The team will wear a vastly different look compared to the one that won the medal in Tokyo four months ago.
Almost half of the players from the squad – including inspirational goalkeeper PR Sreejesh – which finished on the podium in Tokyo, have been rested as head coach Graham Reid looks to rebuild the side, as well as add to its depth, ahead of a busy 2022, the 2023 World Cup and, ultimately, the Paris Olympics.
Apart from Sreejesh, forwards Simranjeet Singh – who scored two goals in the bronze-medal match – Gurjant Singh and Mandeep Singh, midfielder Nilakanta Sharma and defenders Amit Rohidas and Surender Kumar have not been included in the squad that has travelled to Dhaka. Centre-half Vivek Sagar Prasad has been rested after he led the U-21 team at the recent Junior World Cup while two members from the Tokyo team, defenders Rupinderpal Singh and Birendra Lakra, have announced their retirements.
Eye on the future
Reid, who has barely had any break since the Olympics, had said while announcing his selections that the players were chosen with an idea to build a ‘deep and strong squad’. “While selecting this team, we now must have our eyes on the future. It takes a deep and strong squad to build sustained success so players have to be given opportunities to perform,” he said.
The sharp decline in continental hockey, which has coincided with India’s steady growth, means the Asian Champions Trophy is an ideal stage for Reid to experiment.
The tournament, where India are the co-winners of the previous edition with Pakistan after the final was washed out, doesn’t hold any big-picture significance – the Asian Games gold medallists get an Olympic berth, the Asia Cup winners qualify for the World Cup but the Asian Champions Trophy offers no such context.
The competition got diluted even more after Malaysia, a team that constantly punches above its weight and has been a constant irritant for India, pulled out due to Covid-related concerns. Pakistan, whom India play on the December 17, left for Dhaka without their two goalkeepers after they were denied visas. Siegfried Aikman, Pakistan’s new coach, will have to make do with the junior team goalkeepers who already had Bangladesh visas.
Aikman’s former team, Asian Games gold medallists Japan, will hope to build on the momentum they’ve gained because of the Olympics while South Korea, India’s first opponents, are no more a force they once were.
In a shortened Olympic cycle, this gives Reid enough space to test players to prepare the team first for the Asian Games, where India can seal the Olympic birth, and then focus on the World Cup at home followed by the Paris Games.
Filling Sreejesh’s shoes
Reid’s immediate focus will be on identifying a replacement for Sreejesh, a seemingly impossible task given the heroic role he played in helping India step on the Olympic podium. The veteran goalkeeper, a consistent performer for a major part of the last decade, is likely to remain the first-choice custodian in the short term. The team management, however, has hinted at looking beyond him for the Paris Olympics. By then, Sreejesh will be 36 years old.
This gives Krishan Pathak (24), a reserve at the Olympics, the chance to stake a claim for a permanent spot after spending years as the team’s backup goalkeeper. Suraj Karkera, who has been in the core group for the last Olympic cycle but didn’t get enough chances, too will get an opportunity to show why he is rated highly by peers.
“Suraj has come in for Sreejesh. He has been playing well for a long time and in Dhaka, he can show how much he has improved since the last time he played for India,” Manpreet said.
Karkera, 26, is conscious of the challenge that awaits him. “It is always going to be hard to fill his (Sreejesh’s) shoes. We have been learning from him for so long. He shares his knowledge with all of us during goalpost training and gives us a lot of tips. So, I have a big responsibility,” he said.
The next one week in Dhaka will also be important for forward Akashdeep Singh, who will look to claw his way back into the team after being dropped for the Olympics, and half a dozen young players who will look to present their cases.
Reid’s experimentation is likely to continue even during next year’s FIH Pro League. But as the Olympic medallists make a return to the field, their sights are firmly set on the next target, the Paris Games. Tuesday will mark the beginning of a new journey in that direction.
With an eye on next year’s Asian Games, the 2023 World Cup and the Paris Olympics, coach Graham Reid has named a vastly different squad compared to the one that finished on the podium in Tokyo. Below are the players who were left out, and those who have been included:
In: Suraj Karkera; Out: PR Sreejesh; Retained: Krishan Bahadur Pathak
In: Gurinder Singh, Jarmanpreet Singh, Dipsan Tirkey, Nilam Sanjeep Xess, Mandeep Mor; Out: Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar, Rupinderpal Singh, Birendra Lakra (both retired); Retained: Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar
In: Jaskaran Singh, Rajkumar Pal, Akashdeep Singh; Out: Nilakanta Sharma, Vivek Sagar Prasad; Retained: Hardik Singh, Manpreet Singh, Sumit
In: Gursahibjit Singh, Shilanand Lakra; Out: Simranjeet Singh, Gurjant Singh, Mandeep Singh; Retained: Shamsher Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Dilpreet Singh
December 14: vs South Korea; December 15: vs Bangladesh; December 17: vs Pakistan; December 19: vs Japan; December 21: Semifinals; December 22: Final
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