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Men's Hockey Pro League

'There’s healthy competition within the squad', India coach Craig Fulton ahead of FIH Pro League

Published at :February 10, 2024 at 1:42 PM
Modified at :February 10, 2024 at 6:45 PM
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(Courtesy : Hockey India)

Ankhi Dutta

India will take on Spain in their first match on 10th February.

In 2024, the Indian men’s hockey team faces a crucial year as they prepare for the Olympics in Paris. The Men’s FIH Pro League 2023-24, a high-level competition featuring nine top hockey nations, is a key platform for them to fine-tune their strategies and performance. India, who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, will play eight home-leg matches against formidable opponents such as Australia, Spain, Netherlands, and Ireland at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium and Rourkela’s Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium. With 16 matches in total, the team aims to make the most of this opportunity.

The team is determined to start the year on a positive note, especially after their disappointing performance at the Hockey World Cup on home turf in 2023. Head coach Craig Fulton stressed the importance of giving match time to a diverse mix of players, including both seasoned veterans and promising youngsters before the start of the tournament.

“It is the home stretch before the Olympics, and we are looking to get some consistent performances in. There are a few youngsters that are really exciting to watch and have been added to the squad. They will be given opportunities in these eight games so that we can confirm our Olympic squad,” Fulton said.

As the Indian men’s hockey team prepares for the Olympics in Paris, the Pro League is a crucial platform for them to fine-tune their strategies and performance. The team, who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, will play 16 matches in total, eight at home and eight away, against formidable opponents such as Australia, Spain, Netherlands, and Ireland.

The team’s coach, Craig Fulton, has a twofold focus on the Pro League. The first eight matches will serve as a litmus test for assessing his squad’s readiness for the Paris Games, while the second eight matches will provide opportunities to refine strategies and ensure ample playing time for key players. His approach aims to optimize the team’s performance leading up to the Olympics.

Other teams also view the early stages of the tournament as a chance to experiment with new talent and tactical approaches. While victories against top-tier opponents like Australia, Netherlands, and Germany would undoubtedly instill confidence, the primary objective remains to identify the most effective player combinations and refine on-field tactics and formations.

In the broader context, the Pro League serves as a platform for honing skills and tactics, with results taking a backseat to the overarching goal of Olympic preparation. As long as India remains focused on their preparations, the specific outcomes of Pro League matches are of secondary importance.

However, the team faces a major challenge with the recent withdrawal of Varun Kumar, a key player in India’s defensive lineup, due to rape allegations under the POCSO act. Fulton has described the situation as a ‘distraction’ and ‘challenging’ but assures that the team has a plan to navigate through these difficult circumstances.

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Heading into the tournament, captain Harmanpreet Singh will be under pressure to perform at his best, particularly with his drag-flicking skills. However, India will also be seeking a reliable alternative for penalty corner conversions in the absence of Varun. Jugraj Singh emerges as a potential candidate to step up and fill this role. While known for his powerful drag-flicks, Jugraj should focus on improving his strike rate to effectively capitalize on scoring opportunities.

Another player to watch out for is Araijeet Singh Hundal, who made his debut in the national team after his standout performance at the Junior Hockey World Cup, where India achieved a fourth-place finish. While he gained exposure during recent matches in South Africa, this tournament presents his first major challenge against top senior international teams.

Hundal’s exceptional finishing skills position him as a formidable contender, poised to compete with seasoned forwards like Mandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, and Akashdeep Singh.

Fulton is keen to give the youngsters exposure to help them develop tactically and technically. “There is an abundance of talent and that helps with the depth of the squad so that they are well prepared to come in and do well in case of injuries,” he said.

India’s preparation for the Pro League included a tour to South Africa, where they played three friendly matches against France and the Netherlands, along with an official match against hosts South Africa. Their performance in these matches saw a 4-0 victory and a 2-2 draw against France, followed by a convincing 3-0 win over South Africa. However, they faced a setback with a 1-5 loss against the Netherlands in their final match.

Fulton is confident about his team’s attacking game and aims to balance that with their defense. “The ambition of this team is extremely impressive. The South Africa tour was indicative of the fact that our team’s chemistry is right up there, and there’s healthy competition within the squad, and that is the need of the hour,” he said.

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