Pro League a good platform to build team: Coach Shivendra 

India had beaten world champions Germany twice and Australia once in the ongoing event in Odisha. They play Kookaburras again on Wednesday 
Indian men’s hockey team. (Photo | PTI)
Indian men’s hockey team. (Photo | PTI)

CHENNAI: The World Cup debacle, where they made an exit from the crossover stage, meant India named a new-look team for the FIH Pro League matches against reigning world champions Germany and mighty Australia.

Senior players like Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Amit Rohidas were not in the team while goalkeeper Krishan Pathak opted out due to his marriage. Besides, a few youngsters, who could not make it to the World Cup team, made a comeback. Add to it, they are without a head coach as Aussie Graham Reid left the team after the showpiece event in Odisha while his successor Craig Fulton is expected to join the team only next month.

But all those factors hardly mattered when the Harmanpreet Singh-led side took the field at the Birsa Munda International Stadium in Rourkela, Odisha for their first match against Germany on March 10 as they stunned the recently-crowned world champions 3-2. They then registered a 5-4 win over Australia before getting the better of Germany (6-3) again and jumping to the top of the table in the Pro League on Monday.

Shivendra Singh, who has been coaching the team with interim coaches David John and BJ Kariappa, credited the recent success to change in strategies done keeping the influx of youngsters in mind. "The team composition has changed since the World Cup. The change means both the planning and positions of the players have also been changed," Shivendra, former India forward, told this daily.

He also cited a few examples. "Dilpreet (Singh) was played at different positions. In one match, he played as a defensive midfielder while in another he played as an attacking midfielder. In his role as the attacking midfielder, Dilpreet, who usually plays as a forward, impressed the coaches with his ball control. Similarly, Shamsher Singh was made the striker. These changes worked for the team in the last three matches," he said.

Dilpreet is one of the players, who returned to the squad for the ongoing tournament. The others are S Karthi, Sumit, Manjeet and Gurjant Singh. Showering praise on the youngsters, Shivendra said, "All these players have potential that's why they have been selected for the Pro League. They can play for a long time for the country as they will only improve with experience."

Draf-flicker Harmanpreet with 11 goals is the leading goal scorer of the tournament. He was off-colour during the World Cup but roared back to form as he has scored five goals in three matches so far. The coach defended his show at the World Cup saying that converting penalty corners has become extremely difficult these days with almost every team possessing a great first rusher apart from good defenders.

"Harmanpreet was very good in Pro League matches before the World Cup but couldn't carry the form into the marquee tournament. He was doing the same things but couldn't succeed. One reason is that every team, these days, has a good first rusher, which makes it extremely difficult for a drag-flicker to convert the penalty corners. Even Manpreet Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad and Amit Rohidas have been doing the same role for India. So we are trying to find ways to score from that position. We see videos of our opponents and devise ways to how we can beat the first rusher or how we can distract him so that he can be thrown off the line. These days you have to deal with rushers first before beating the goalkeeper to score from the penalty corners."

He also tried to give perspective to the recent success by saying that Pro League is a good platform for developing bench strength but nothing more than that. "We are getting good matches to build a team for the future. Going top of the table doesn't mean a lot as it's neither a qualifier for the World Cup nor the Olympics. Yes, it's true we are getting important points which will help us in improving our world rankings but more than that it's a good opportunity to identify talent and prepare a bench strength."

The team will again play Australia on Wednesday in the ongoing leg of the tournament. The players then will have a camp starting in the first week of April in Bengaluru before playing two Pro League matches each against Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands and Argentina in May and June. Shivendra hopes the new faces along with their experienced teammates improve by leaps and bounds before the team flies out for England and Netherlands.

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