India will head into their first tournament of the year, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, without their main forward, the best drag-flicker and one of their key midfielders. And, without a coach.
That they would travel to Malaysia without a chief coach was already known. The process to appoint Harendra Singh’s successor is in its final stages but it’ll most likely be another couple of weeks before the appointment is finalised. A bigger blow, however, is in the playing squad.
All India regulars competed at the National Championships in Gwalior last month. Their presence boosted the profile of an otherwise mundane tournament but there has been heavy collateral damage. Seven senior and two junior team players have been ruled out of the Azlan Shah Cup due to injuries picked up while playing for their respective units at the nationals.
Consequently, Hockey India is likely to instruct its core group of players to not compete in domestic tournaments till the Tokyo Olympics – if they qualify. “We won’t compete in domestic tournaments if we qualify for Tokyo. We cannot risk further injuries,” a player said.
The list of India’s walking wounded is a cause of concern. Chinglensana Singh, who led Railways to the title in Gwalior, has a fractured ankle and is out for at least a month. Ramandeep Singh’s return after an eight-month layoff has been cut short by an ankle injury while Rupinderpal Singh, who was set to make a comeback after being dropped for the World Cup, is nursing a back injury.
Asia’s player of the year Harmanpreet Singh and veteran SV Sunil are carrying minor niggles and the team management did not want to take any risks with them ahead of the World Series Finals, the first hurdle en route to Olympic qualification. Lalit Upadhyay and Akashdeep Singh, along with junior team members Vishal Antil and Pardeep Singh, too weren’t considered for selection after they reported to the national camp with some knocks.
The spate of injuries is because of the unforgiving calendar. Players have barely had any rest since the World Cup, straightaway joining their units to compete in domestic tournaments in different parts of the country. The gruelling schedule culminated with the national championship in Gwalior last month and after a week-long break, the players had to report for the national camp in Bangalore in mid-February.
A player said work overload and lack of proper support staff – physios and masseurs mainly – made their recovery difficult between matches, leading to injuries. “None of the teams have physios… some of us were playing through minor injuries during tournaments. Thankfully, none of the injuries are serious. We are undergoing rehab and should be fit by the end of this month,” the player said.
India’s troubles do not end there. The team will have to play the first two matches with one player less since Akashdeep was suspended for two matches by the International Hockey Federation for his behaviour after India’s quarterfinal defeat against Netherlands in the World Cup. The suspension will be enforced even though Akashdeep will be absent owing to injury.
The absence of experienced players means India will field a relatively fresh-looking squad for the tournament, with Vivek Sagar Prasad returning to the team along with Shilanand Lakra. Manpreet Singh, who was carrying a few niggles himself at the nationals, will lead the team and will have Surender Kumar as his deputy.
Apart from India and hosts Malaysia, the other participating nations are Canada, Korea, South Africa and Asian Games gold medallists Japan. The tournament begins on March 23.
Squad: Goalkeepers: P R Sreejesh, Krishan B Pathak Defenders: Gurinder Singh, Surender Kumar (vice-captain), Varun Kumar, Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas, Kothajit Singh Khadangbam; Midfielders: Hardik Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Sumit, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Manpreet Singh (captain); Forwards: Mandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Gurjant Singh, Shilanand Lakra, Sumit Kumar.