When Dharamvir Singh stroked the ball past Pakistani goalkeeper Imran Butt in the men’s hockey final penalty shootout at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, India did something that they hadn’t been able to do since 1998 – win an Asian Games men’s hockey gold. And book a direct ticket for the Rio Olympics in the process.

The prize for gold is the same this time around, and the aim isn’t any different. Which is why even as the Indian team is going to Jakarta on the back of a strong performance in the recently concluded Champions Trophy where they suffered a narrow loss to Australia in the final and with a world ranking of five (the highest ranked Asian team), they can’t afford to take things lightly. Indian captain and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh concurs.

“It’s a different tournament because in the Champions Trophy we faced almost all the top European teams. Now, when it comes to Asia, the game style is totally different,” Sreejesh told Quint earlier. “I think in the Asian Games all the matches are really tough, because points are really important to reach the semis and the finals. The pressure is completely different because all the teams are there to qualify for the Olympics.”
Ever since the appointment of head coach Harendra Singh earlier in the year, the Indian men’s hockey team has been on an upward trajectory. Before his brief stint with the women’s team, Singh had coached India’s junior men’s team to a World Cup title in 2016. Having been a part of the system for over three decades, very few the workings of Indian hockey as well as him.

“I never go to a tournament to participate, I go there to win it,” has always been Singh’s modus operandi. His attention to detail, emphasis on diet and fitness, and excellent man-management skills were never more evident than in the Champions Trophy. The match against Pakistan is a classic case in point. India was just 1-0 up against their arch rivals at the end of the third quarter, which is too slender a lead in hockey.

Roelant Oltmans, who has coached India in the past, and is now in charge of the green shirts, knew both sets of players better than anybody else. Things could’ve got tricky, but fitness helped India edge ahead. The game ended with a 4-0 mauling as Pakistan found it impossible to cope with India’s relentless passing and moving.

India has been clubbed in Group A alongside Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Sri Lanka for the Asian Games. Finish in the top two of the group, and India are a semi-final and final away from booking their place at Tokyo 2020. It sounds simple on paper, but the likes of Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Oman and Thailand in Group B will be determined to spoil the party. And there are areas India will need to improve on if they are to get the desired results at the Asian Games.

One of them is penalty corners. India’s conversion rate from penalty corners leaves a lot to be desired. India’s analytical coach Chris Ciriello, former Australian player and now Harendra Singh’s right-hand man was a penalty corner expert himself, and is working closely with the squad to ensure that what currently seems like a weakness becomes a strength in the near future.

When a team is expected to win a tournament, the pressure that comes with it can be tough to handle sometimes. And that is where Sreejesh believes the leaders in the Indian camp will come to the fore.

“In hockey, a captain has more duty off the field, you need to unite the players and do more team bonding activities which have to be fun, not formal,” he said. “Among the defenders, Harmanpreet, Birendra, Bob (Rupinder Pal Singh) have to take leadership. Responsibilities are divided within the team.

“Among the midfielders, Manpreet, Sardar, even Chinglensana (take responsibility). And in the forwards, Sunil, Akash and Mandeep have to take responsibilities.”

He sums it up with a statement that reflects the attitude currently prevalent in the Indian team. An attitude the trickles down from the very top.

“On the field I’m not the captain, I’m just a goalkeeper and that is my first duty. It’s more about us in this tournament. It’s my duty to give life to my team, and on the field, I’m just a goalkeeper saving the post.”

India play their first match in the Asian Games against Hong Kong on August 22.

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| Edited by: Suyash Upadhyaya



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