Pro League: Tough test awaits Indian hockey team

The Indian men’s hockey team’s Olympic qualification is done and dusted. The tough journey starts now with the Manpreet Singh-led side set to test their skills and preparedness against the best teams in the world in the Pro League over the next six months, starting with two matches against the Netherlands over the weekend.

Defender Rupinder Pal Singh conceded that the next six months would be crucial for India as they will clash with the best in the business to know where they stand before the Olympics.

Ever since their quarter-final exit from the World Cup in December 2018, India have barely played against a top team. Though the side toured Australia and Belgium in May last year, the hosts fielded second-string squads, with the latter fielding their U-21 squad. But even a heavily-depleted Australia hammered a full-strength India 4-0 and 5-2 in Perth.

India’s only major achievement in an otherwise uneventful 2019—they didn’t play even a single top team—was qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics by beating Russia. But 2020 promises to produce high-octane action in the build up to the quadrennial games in July-August.

“Playing the Pro League will be amazing. Facing top teams continuously will be very good. We didn’t play against any top team in 2019, the last of that being at the World Cup,” said Rupinder, who has more than 200 international caps. After refusing to play in the inaugural year, India will open their campaign against the Dutch on Saturday and Sunday, following which they will host Belgium next month (February 8 and 9).

Rupinder agreed that the Pro League will seriously test India given that they didn’t play a top side last year. “We played a Test series in Australia and Belgium but Test matches are very different from FIH tournaments. Generally, teams prefer to play their full-strength squads in top (FIH) tournaments and not during bilateral Test series. The teams that know there’s no important event coming up, like to try out new players in bilateral series. That’s why Pro League will be an extremely important tournament for us,” added the seasoned drag-flicker.

The Pro League is expected to live up to its tagline “Hockey At Its Best” as the best teams from around the world will compete against each other for the second year running. After Australia won the eight-team inaugural tournament last year, India joined the bandwagon realising the level and potential of the tournament.

All nine teams will play each other twice, making it a total of 16 matches. The team with the most number of points will be the winner.

India will start the tournament against the top-three ranked teams —No 3 Netherlands (January 18-19), world champions and No 2 Belgium (February 8-9) and defending champions and world No 1 Australia (February 21-22).

“I am looking forward to the season. It is important to start strong and sharp with our first three encounters against the top three teams in the world,” said chief coach Graham Reid.

India will play all three legs at home in Bhubaneswar before touring Germany in April. “Playing in Bhubaneswar is always good for us. Apart from the crowd, which always backs us, it’s good for us because we have been training here for the last two months,” said India goalkeeper and former captain PR Sreejesh. “So, we have enough experience here. Apart from the obvious home advantage, we can gain from the time spent here, which is a positive for us.”

The Pro League will also help Reid’s boys prepare for the Olympics as all nine participating nations have also qualified for Tokyo, with four of them—Australia, Argentina, Spain and New Zealand—also in India’s pool at the Games.

“It’s a good thing because even in the Olympics we’ll have to play these teams. It’ll help in building confidence and players will get experience of playing against these top teams before Tokyo,” said vice-captain and drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh. “We’ll also get to know what mistakes we commit and how to rectify them. If we are doing well, we’ll also know how to get better. It’s all about how we can improve ourselves hereon.”

Also, playing constantly against the best will augment India’s tempo and give the team more consistency before the Olympics. “The main thing for us is to bring consistency. For us the next 16 matches (in the Pro League) will test our weaknesses, strengths and tell us what we have to work on. It’ll be a good exposure for players who have lesser number of caps. By the time the Olympics are around the corner, everyone will have the experience of 16 more games,” said Rupinder. “Pro league is all about that. You have to play at the same high level in each of these games.”

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