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India men’s hockey team, playing in the FIH Pro League for the first time, have got off to a fantastic start. Surprise victories over Netherlands – the same opposition that ousted them in the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup – and World Champions Belgium, has reignited medal hopes for India at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Manpreet, though, is not feeling the pressure.

“I don’t feel pressure,” Manpreet tells Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview. “Before the Olympics, Pro League is very important for us. We are playing the same teams we will be playing in Tokyo. The team has improved a lot since 2018 World Cup – and we had good games against Belgium and the Netherlands. We hope to continue in the same vein. Our first target is to top our Olympic pool, so we are preparing ourselves in the same way,” he says.

Under coach Graham Reid, India’s attacking mindset has become a regular feature on display. The counter-attacking style of play was seen in the previous game against Belgium, when the defence was taking aerial routes to send long-passes to the forward line inside the Belgium circle. India took 12 shots in 23 circled entries out of which 11 were on target. Manpreet says it is a strategy which his team is trying to improve to create more goal-scoring chances.

 

“We are instructing our defenders to first pass the ball to free the attackers. We have strong defenders who can easily play long passes – Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas – they have been executing long passes really well in the past few games. It’s a strategy we are working on and trying to improve, so that it benefits the team in the future games.”

Another improvement being seen under coach Reid has been in defending penalty corners. While India have scored 5 out of 15 penalty corners so far in the Pro League, they have defended 23 out of 27.

“Penalty corners is one of the main areas every team works on. So are we. In defence, we work really hard in the training on blocking penalty corners. We have really good players in our defence – Amit Rohidas blocked really well in the first four games. He made continuous stops with his legs, and then passed the ball. The better we are able in defending PCs, it will be better for us,” Manpreet says.

“In attacking, we have really good dragflickers – so the more PCs we create, we will have more chances of scoring goals,” he adds.

Reid made seven changes to his team in the previous leg against Belgium to test out his bench strength. Midfielder RajKumar Pal got some game time and displayed good performance. He is not the only junior player to grab attention in the past year. With consistent performance in 2019, Vivek Sagar Prasad has become a regular in the team. He was recently awarded the FIH Rising Star of the Year award.

“Rajkumar made his debut for the team – he had a couple of good games. We spoke to him, he said he enjoyed playing for the team. He said all the senior players really motivated him. He was really happy. We have youngsters like Vivek Sagar, Nilakanta, they are performing really good as well. So the balance between youngsters and experienced players has been successful for us,” says Manpreet.

 

For himself, Manpreet has discovered a dual role, in recent times. He links up the defence with the forward line, and also runs back the length of the turf to support his defence. “This is not just for me, but for everyone in the team,” he says. “Those who are attacking, also need to run back and help the defence. Agar apna ghar bachaoge, to hi to goal kar paoge,” he adds.

The 27-year-old, who recently became the first Indian to win FIH Men’s Player of the Year Award, says he gives priority to his defensive duties while marking his man. “I always try to give my best. If I am going into the attack, I need to be aware of my defensive duties as well. So, I keep following the man I am marking… my priority remains to defend first.”

India will now face former World Champions Australia in the two Pro League clashes over the weekend at Kalinga Stadium. With Reid at the helm, Indian players can get a solid study into the style of Australia hockey and mindset, considering he was coaching The Kookaburras just a few years ago. Manpreet reveals the message from the former Australia international to the team.

“Reid has been Australia’s coach in the past, so he has given us good insights into the Australian team. But he always tells us to focus on us and how we play. If we play well, then we can score and we can defend. So, he always tells us to focus on our performance,” he says.

The Australian team is known for aggressive tactics on the field – something which has caused troubles for India in the past. Manpreet says that it is important for Indian players to not lose their cool during the match against Australia, and make the best out of every situation.

“Australia can be a really aggressive team, they push a lot. But we have discussed that we need to remain calm, and keep our heads cool on the turf. If the umpire sees a foul, he will punish them, and we can take advantage of it,” he says.

He adds: “We need to avoid getting cards. Hockey is a fast game and even a two-minute card proves to be really costly to the team. So, we always discuss that even if the opposition is making a mistake, we don’t have to make similar ones.”