After just one tournament, the Indian hockey team management has ditched its philosophy of blooding in young players into the squad as veterans Sardar Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Birendra Lakra returned for Champions Trophy in Breda, Holland, scheduled in the last week of June.
Harendra Singh, who took over as coach from Sjoerd Marijne earlier this month, said it was important to select players on the basis of form and fitness, instead of simply looking at the age. Harendra has made five changes to the squad that travelled to Gold Coast for the Commonwealth Games, where the performance of a young side was criticised so severely that Marijne ended up losing his job.
While Harendra has brought back the trio who formed the core of the team for a major part of the last four-year cycle, he has left out veteran defenders Rupinderpal Singh and Kothajit Singh, midfielder Lalit Upadhyay and goalkeeper Suraj Karkera, who was emerging as captain PR Sreejesh’s deputy.
Jarmanpreet Singh, a 21-year-old half-back, has earned maiden national team call on the back of solid performances for Petroleum Sports Promotion Board. Jarmanpreet was in the probables of the junior India team, coached by Harendra, two years ago but fell out of favour as the tournament neared. “He has improved his built. He is very strong and technically, too, he has gained a lot of ground,” Harendra says.
Another player from Harendra’s junior World Cup team who makes his comeback after being on the fringes is goalkeeper Krishan Pathak. His inclusion comes as a surprise as Karkera was fast blossoming as Sreejesh’s back-up. However, he conceded a few soft goals in Gold Coast at crucial junctures, which has forced the team management to widen its search for second-choice goalkeepers.
While Pathak is expected to step on to the field only if the situation arises, Harendra has rung in crucial changes in the middle of the field. Former India captain Sardar, whose career looked all but over at the start of the year, makes a dramatic return. It is learnt that he was told by former coach Marijne in no uncertain terms that the Azlan Shah Cup in March would be his last international tournament as he set out to form his core group for the Tokyo Olympics. However, Sardar’s experience was missed in Gold Coast, where the young team could not cope with the pressure.
Sardar’s role in the team, however, remains suspect. It is highly unlikely that Manpreet Singh, who was replaced as the captain by Sreejesh, will be made to make way for Sardar. Both are centre-halves but Manpreet was one of the bright spots from an otherwise gloomy CWG campaign. Sardar could continue playing as a free-man, a kind of roving midfielder.
Up front, the management continues to show faith in Akashdeep Singh, who had a miserable CWG. Akashdeep, who has a habit of scoring opportunistic goals, could not manage even one decent shot on target throughout India’s campaign. However, the return of Ramandeep Singh and Sardar should help him elevate his game as well. The combination of Sardar, Ramandeep and Akashdeep has worked well for the team before.
Harendra said the Champions Trophy will give him an opportunity to assess the team before he finalises his core group for the Asian Games. “Every coach has his philosophy. For me, form and fitness are important. The players who are returning to the team have proven their fitness so they should be given a chance,” Harendra said. “This way, we can test more players too. After the Champions Trophy, we can have a look at the entire pool of players and select the best performers for the Asian Games.” India will be playing a friendly against Argentina on June 21 before opening their campaign against Pakistan the following day.
Squad: Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh (c), Krishan Bahadur Pathak; Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar, Jarmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas; Midfielders: Manpreet Singh, Chinglensana (vc) Sardar Singh and Vivek Sagar Prasad; Forwards: SV Sunil, Ramandeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Sumit Kumar (Jr.) Akashdeep Singh and Dilpreet Singh.