India’s hockey teams made the most of the opportunity to not only qualify for the Olympics but also prepare for the test ahead
2019 will be remembered as a year when the India hockey teams took most of their opportunities: including the biggest one of them all: Olympic qualification.
While India were devoid of some major competitions to participate in, their commendable performances at the FIH Olympic Hockey Qualifiers in the end of the season stole the limelight for both the men’s and women’s hockey teams of the country.
The men’s team, led by Manpreet Singh, enjoyed a relatively easy season that culminated in them handing Russia an 11-3 drubbing on aggregate to seal their place at the Olympics.
With most of the top teams engaging themselves in the brand new FIH Pro League, the Indian teams were largely restricted to playing teams ranked below them on the FIH charts this season.
Not dismayed by the situation at hand, the Indian hockey team chose to make the most of the opportunity and fielded a number of youngsters as they set sights at their long-term future. While the men’s team had the likes of Vivek Sagar Prasad and Hardik Singh, the women’s team saw the rise of Lalremsiami and Sharmila Devi.
Prasad, the 19-year-old who was a part of India's silver-medal run at the 2018 Youth Olympics, was a constant fixture in the Indian side often sharing the midfield responsibilities with his captain Manpreet Singh and others.
Hardik, meanwhile, has proven to be a trusted link between the Indian defence and midfield and also carries an attacking flair that can prove to be of interest in the future.
Among the women, while Lalremsiami’s rise to prominence has been a well-documented story, with her being nominated for the FIH Rising Star of the Year, it’s Sharmila’s performance that has taken many by surprise as well.
The 18-year-old has been a reliable force in the attack often, using her skills to stretch the defence and also has a knack of running into spaces to create goal-scoring opportunities.
With a new head coach, comes a new philosophy as well as a new playing style. While this can prove to be dangerous if not adapted in time, a smooth transition at times sees the team raise their game a few bars higher.
Caught in this conundrum of uncertainty were Manpreet and boys, who welcomed the experienced Aussie Graham Reid as their new head coach.
For a man who took the Kookaburras to the top of the rankings chart and helped them pocket a handful of titles during his tenure, the Indian job was meant to be a daunting one. But with a series of matches that were all but a tune-up to the Olympic qualifiers in the winter, Reid had enough opportunities to get his team combination right before the all-important matches.
While the squad rotation policy remained intact throughout the season, Reid slowly worked through his way with the team till he got it right. Helping him in this endeavour was his trusted lieutenant Chris Ciriello, India’s analytical coach. Having worked with Reid in the past as a player, Ciriello knew exactly what his fellow countryman wanted from the side in various situations.
Though nothing much changed in the women’s team concerning their backroom staff, head coach Sjoerd Marijne got an entire season to fine-tune his team into a well-oiled machine that could challenge the best in the business on any given day.
The Indian women’s team grew from strength to strength throughout the season as they took the learnings from their tours and bettered themselves at every possible turn.
Be it going toe-to-toe with the reigning Olympic champions Great Britain, or dominating the FIH World Series Finals in Japan, or the nail-biter against the USA for a place at the Olympics, the Rani Rampal-captained side barely disappointed anyone with their efforts.
Talk to Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh about his time with the senior team and he will inadvertently take you back to the time when he was a deputy to the likes of Bharat Chettri and Adrian D'Souza, spending long hours sitting on the bench and watching the senior pros guard the stick.
While Krishna Pathak, Suraj Karkera and Rajani Etimarpu spent most of their time on the same iron benches till this season, a relatively less daunting season saw the Indian teams give their reserve goalkeepers enough opportunities to get valuable match experience ahead of the Olympic year.
The move not only saw the goalkeepers only come up with some fine performances that helped them build confidence, but also commit some rudimentary errors that ended up costing the team. Like the one Pathak made during the shoot-off against South Korea in the final of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
Banking on the performances this season, one can hope to see the Indian hockey teams shift gears and take their game much higher as they prepare for the all-important Olympic challenge next year.