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January 22 2019
For Indian hockey, the future is now
15 December 2018

The national team’s young players occasionally betray their lack of experience, but they showed at the World Cup that they belong on the big stage

The selection of the Indian team for the Hockey World Cup came in for a fair bit of criticism. Sardar Singh had been forced into retirement, Rupinderpal Singh was dropped, and S.V. Sunil and Ramandeep Singh were lost to injury — India knew it would miss close to a thousand international games’ worth of experience at the marquee event in Bhubaneswar.

This lack of experience was evident in patches where the youngsters either lost tempo or simply veered off the plan, only to suddenly snap back. Amid all of this, though, several players impressed, not just with their talent but also their understanding of the game. They learnt from their mistakes — making new ones but rarely repeating them.

Despite India eventually finishing sixth in the competition, there were many good signs: the younger lot holds out hope that the team will only improve from here. And while coach Harendra Singh is not one to delve into individual achievements — “There are 16 Amit Rohidas in this team, which one are you talking about,” he ticked off a local journalist who had wanted a quote on the home favourite — The Hindu highlights five players who caught the eye:

VARUN KUMAR

One of seven players from the Junior World Cup-winning side two years ago, Varun has been under Harendra for a while now. He had an uncertain period soon after the JWC high when he was left out of the probables for the senior side, but was called up for the Europe tour in 2017.

Since then, the 23-year-old defender-dragflicker, who also often earns penalty corners in the opposition circle, has been a key member of the Indian side.

Varun’s powerful drag-flick resulted in the penalty stroke against Belgium that changed the complexion of the game. His ability to understand the situation and stay calm under pressure stands out. His clean tackling and his accuracy and power, both with aerial balls and grounded shots, make him critical to India’s plans. Varun is one of the few whom the coach trusts for the diagonal aerial pass to beat the opposition.

SIMRANJEET SINGH

Another from the junior side to make the transition, albeit much later than Varun.

After making his senior team debut in the four-nation tournament earlier this year, Simranjeet had a breakout performance at the Champions Trophy, where he was called up as a last-minute replacement for Akashdeep. The 21-year-old made sure he didn’t let the opportunity slip.

Drilled in the Harendra school of not holding on to the ball too long, Simranjeet has terrific positional sense — not just of his own place during a game but also that of the opponents.

His runs down the right and his final passes inside the circle create chances and trouble the opposition. He isn’t merely content setting up goals, although that’s a role he excels in; Simranjeet scored three of his own at the World Cup. Moreover, he can fall back to shore up the midfield as well as push forward to open up gaps.

LALIT UPADHYAY

The 25-year-old is a throwback to the times of magical Indian dribblers, but he also has the fitness and stamina of the modern hockey player.

His gift of dodging past defenders is a delight to watch, his ball control spectacular and his 3D skills — the ability to run with the ball on the stick or in the air, flicked over a defensive obstacle — second to none.

What he lacked was the patience to wait for the right moment. He also had a tendency of outwitting opponents without progressing forward.

Upadhyay addressed both shortcomings to great effect at the World Cup. He created space for teammates, his dribbling within reason left others free to exploit gaps and take shots at goal. What’s more, he was a reliable poacher himself. Always talented, he showed the maturity to adapt to situations, preferring simplicity to flashiness and being more confident with his passes.

SURENDER KUMAR

The 25-year-old is a product of the Hockey India League. For years he ground it out on the domestic circuit, but it was his stand-out showing with Delhi Waveriders in the HIL that finally drew the spotlight to him.

Highly rated by coach Cedric D’Souza, the defender broke into the national side after the HIL and, despite not being part of the shortlisted probables, was included in the squad for the Rio Olympics as a replacement for the injured Birendra Lakra.

Surender’s biggest strength is his clean play; he rarely indulges in physical battles. His tackles are as refined as any and his defensive clearances inside the circle have rarely led to penalty corners. Outside the circle, he is skilful enough to steal the ball at any moment and turn defence into attack for the Indian side, with his aerial passes powerful enough to clear the length of the field. At the World Cup, he often stepped up to reinforce the midfield, but Surender is among the few players who are content staying on the backline, away from the spotlight.

CHINGLENSANA SINGH KANGUJAM

The Manipur player, a protégé of former India international Brojen Singh, first made the national team in 2011 as a 19-year-old in the Champions Challenge in South Africa. It was sheer coincidence that he completed 200 international caps against the African nation in the World Cup opener here.

In the intervening years, the sturdy midfielder has gone from rookie to vice-captain and think-tank member, from slogging away silently to being one of India’s most influential players.

He still doesn’t yell or scream as much as others, but his ball distribution and ability to switch flanks and stretch the opposition defence makes him an ideal foil for captain Manpreet Singh’s flamboyance in the middle. He scored the second goal against Canada, opening the gates, and his knack of picking up empty spots in the opposition’s defence and wedging in for opportunistic goals makes him a dangerous customer.

 

 

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