Like every other team at the Champions Trophy, India too travelled to London without some of their key players. Champions Trophy was a testing ground for teams before Rio Olympics. India generally do not experiment during tournaments. But of late, they have started to. Perhaps, it’s a sign of an increasing player pool and also the confidence coach Roelant Oltmans has on his bench strength.
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The players repaid his trust with some remarkable individual performances. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, as is the case very often now, was responsible more than anyone to ensure India reached the final. Manpreet Singh proved once again why he is looked upon as the next leader, admirably holding the midfield. Mandeep Singh, Devinder Walmiki, Nikkin Thimmaiah and Akashdeep Singh, among others, who played with such pace, movement and discipline up front that you generally do not associate with Indian players. Such was the overall performance in winning the silver medal that the absence of Sardar, drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh, (inconsistent) striker Ramandeep Singh, among others, was hardly felt. It will give Oltmans a headache before selecting his final squad for the Olympics, but one he won’t mind.
The Indian Express takes a look at young players who had a breakthrough tournament and some veterans who redefined their style to make a more meaningful contribution:
Harmanpreet Singh (Defender):
It’s only his second major tournament but such is his confidence that it seems he’s been in the team forever. While his drag-flicking is suspect against top defences, Harmanpreet more than makes up for it with some slick defending and a surprisingly calm head on his young shoulders. The 20-year-old has played back-to-back tournaments and has stood out in both.
At the Azlan Shah Cup a couple of months ago, he was included in place of VR Raghunath. At Champions Trophy, Oltmans tried him in place of Rupinderpal. And in these two outings, he has shown he is as good as the two veterans, if not better, in the drag-flicking department.
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Purely as a defender, he might even be better. Oltmans has a tough choice to make in this department – whether he drops one of the two experienced players or goes with three drag-flickers remains to be seen.
Surender Singh (Defender):
When his name popped up during the Hockey India League auctions a couple of years ago, it hardly generated any excitement. But Delhi coach Cedric D’Souza took a leap of faith and, to the surprise of many, included him in the squad.
A year later, he was one of the stand-out players for Delhi and it turned out to be a defining season for him after he was included in the Azlan Shah-bound squad.
The 22-year-old from Haryana plays in a position in between the deep defender and right half, and has received unequivocal praise from former players and coaches his fearless tackling and positioning.
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“He doesn’t mind putting his body on the line and makes a lot of last-ditch tackles. His positioning sense is good, which is very important for a defender,” says former India captain Viren Rasquinha. “He needs to get a little bit fitter and quicker, though. His movements are not the fastest.”
SV Sunil (forward):
There’s a noticeable change in Sunil’s game. Those long runs on the wings at blinding pace no longer end with a hopeful cross in the box which no Indian player is able to meet.
Instead, Sunil is now willing to move up, hold the ball till his teammates join him and also pass it backwards at times. It’s a factor that has made him more dangerous and the opposition defences more watchful. He also is getting into the box more frequently and is back to scoring goals. It really gives India an edge on the right flank, where it has been found lacking since Gurbaj Singh’s omission. “He is relishing the responsibility of being the vice-captain. It has brought a semblance of maturity to his game,” observes former India goalkeeper and selector AB Subaiah.
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Mandeep Singh (forward):
He has been frustratingly inconsistent since bursting onto the scene during the inaugural Hockey India League. Over the last one week in London, however, Mandeep reminded us what he is capable of. With three goals in the tournament, Mandeep ended as the joint second-highest goalscorer of the tournament. His performance comes at a crucial juncture as his place in the team was in serious doubt following a string of disappointing outings. However, here he looked strong on the ball and added pace and sharpness to the attack, which has been missing for quite some time. His performance is certain to put pressure on Ramandeep, a striker liked by Oltmans but who is inconsistent and unreliable in front of the goal.
Devinder Walmiki (midfielder):
A midfielder who scores occasional goals is a player every coach would want in his side. Off the field, he is so shy and quiet that it’s often easy to miss him. On it, though, he makes his presence felt in a way few Indian players in this squad do. He works tirelessly, linking up between the midfield and defence. After making his debut last year in the World League Semifinals in Belgium, Walmiki has been a regular in the squad until he injured his shoulder during the Hockey India League earlier this year. This was his first tournament since then and he looked fully fit. The goal against Belgium was a glimpse into his abilities.
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The grey areas
While there were plenty of positives India can take from the tournament, some serious areas of concern continue to remain. With less than 50 days for the Olympics, Otlmans has his task cut out:
* The inability to beat higher-ranked teams like Belgium, Germany and Britain remains a concern.
* Penalty corner and field goal conversion is abysmal.
* Defence is still very suspect. Although India did not allow Australia to score a goal in regulation time, they opened up defence on numerous occasions and earned penalty corners at will.
* India have found it tough to create goal-scoring chances despite having more share of possession, as was evident against Australia in the final.
* While the discipline on field has improved, it still is a concern. Cards to players at crucial junctures has been a disadvantage.