Just days before leaving for the Hockey World League semis in Antwerp, Belgium, the Indian hockey team suffered its latest injury blow. Drag flicker VR Raghunath picked up a hamstring injury that coach Paul van Ass said would take 10 days to heal, ruling him out of the tournament that starts on June 20.
Earlier, striker SV Sunil and midfielder Kothajit Singh had to be dropped from the 18-man squad because of injury.
While Sunil had still not recovered from a shin injury that had also seen him miss the Azlan Shah tournament, Kothajit had been hit on the ankle during training a couple of days back.
Another midfielder, Gurbaj Singh, had suffered a fractured nose after being hit by a ball around the same time, but is fit to play.
Van Ass dismissed the notion that the team’s new style of play, which has players playing the equivalent of a full court press, is leading to the injuries.
“None of the players are injured due to the training except perhaps Raghunath. After the series against Japan, he needed rest but had to play a tournament. It’s unfortunate but a fact of life.
“It will always happen. It happens when you push the level and intensity up while training. When you raise the level it is severe on the body,” he said.
The spate of injuries did not worry coach Van Ass. “We have to get used to the fact that we may have injuries to key players before big tournaments. We also lost a couple of players (Nikkin Thimmaiah and Ramandeep Singh) just before the World Cup,” he said.
And while the side might certainly feel the loss of players like Sunil, a key cog in the team’s ability to counter quickly, Van Ass said these are opportunities as well. “Sunil is a very skilful player especially because he is so quick. It is true that key players are missing but it’s also an opportunity for others. If one is missing, the other can step up,” he said.
Looking to make the most of his opportunities would be drag flicker Rupinder Pal Singh. Once a mainstay in the Indian squad, he was initially cut from the squad when it was announced last month. Raghunath was the only specialist drag flicker left in the squad and while Jasjit Kullar does take penalty corners, it was unlikely the team would bank entirely on Kullar.
Drag flicking expert
“After the loss of Raghunath we needed another drag flicker. So we picked Rupinder,” said Van Ass. However, despite returning in an emergency, Rupinder will have to cede his previous position in the heart of defence.
“Rupinder will be back but we won’t play him in his usual position. I will still use him in defence but rather he feature in the flanks because I want more mobility in the middle,” said coach Van Ass.
For the moment, though, Rupinder is simply glad to be back in the scheme of things.
“I did not want to come into the team like this. On one hand I am sorry for Raghunath because I only came into the team because he was injured. But I also want to prove that the decision to drop me wasn’t the correct one. I have to prove that I am good enough, I have to be mentally prepared since playing from a different position is difficult. If I miss a penalty corner, it will add to the pressure on me,” he said.
While the addition of new players may have thrown up a few more variables in the mix, the team still has the basic task of figuring out how to implement the coach’s tactics in a match situation.
India’s Dutch coach Van Ass has emphasised the importance of overcoming the traditional frailties in defence and said the players have “realised” their mistakes in that area.
“We need to close the space available to the opposition. We have changed (tactics) and we have to work on that. We are doing it in practice but we have to see how it works under pressure,” he said.