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Asian test for India ahead of Asian Games | Hockey

Craig Fulton had set his priorities immediately after joining the Indian hockey setup in April. “My immediate goal is to be No.1 in Asia,” the chief coach had said. Fulton and his team will be out to test themselves and achieve their target at the Asian Champions Trophy that starts in Chennai on Thursday. The last tournament before the Hangzhou Asian Games, the August 3-12 event will see India face China, Asian Games champions Japan, Malaysia, holders South Korea and rivals Pakistan, all of whom Harmanpreet Singh and Co will face in China in September-October.

Indian Men's Hockey Team captain Harmanpreet Singh with the team's head coach Craig Fulton after a press conference (PTI)
Indian Men’s Hockey Team captain Harmanpreet Singh with the team’s head coach Craig Fulton after a press conference (PTI)

While some teams have been complaining about the scheduling of the six-team event just ahead of the Asiad, Fulton is glad that his team will have enough matches under their belt despite their returning from the tour of Spain on Monday. “It is great that we are getting to play these matches ahead of the Asian Games. It gives us the ideal platform to study the other teams and also see how players excel in the roles they have been assigned to execute. We had some very good matches in Spain and a good training block before that in Bengaluru,” the South African said.

On paper, India are clear favourites – world No.4, the highest ranked team in the tournament, playing at home, accustomed to conditions, Olympic bronze medallists, the most successful team in tournament history. But on the pitch, it will be a different story as they will have to prove the above-mentioned factors to establish Fulton’s target. For all five rivals, India will be the target, the team to beat for the next one-and-a-half weeks.

“In tournaments like these, no team can be taken lightly. We are looking forward to these matches and seeing where we stand when we play Asian teams. Of course, we want to win every match and perform well here ahead of the Asian Games,” said Harmanpreet.

The status of being the top team in Chennai will boost the home side ahead of the Asian Games where the winners will gain direct qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Anything less and the teams will have to fight under extreme pressure in the qualifiers in Spain and Pakistan early next year.

India will begin their campaign against the lowest-ranked team of the tournament, China (world No.25), in their first outing against their neighbours in seven years, before facing Japan, Malaysia and South Korea.

“European teams always play at a certain level but with Asian countries you never know. At times they play brilliantly, other times they don’t. If you see the last Asian Games nobody thought Japan would beat everyone and win. We also have a history of being troubled by Malaysia. We have to end that,” said former India skipper Manpreet Singh.

Manpreet has a point. In January, South Korea stunned 2016 Rio Olympic champions Argentina to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Odisha. While Pakistan are no longer the force they used to be, India’s final round robin game against their arch-rivals will be a litmus test in handling nerves and pressure. Pakistan last beat India seven years ago in the South Asian Games gold medal match, but since then India have not lost to them even once in 15 outings, of which India won 12, two were drawn and one was washed out.

“Understandably, there is a lot of excitement around India-Pakistan matches, be it cricket or hockey. Naturally, there will be emotions running high when we play against Pakistan. But for us, it’s just another game and we will go into the match with just one focus, to win the game,” said Harmanpreet.

India will be keen to make up for a below par performance last time around in 2021. Playing their first tournament since winning bronze in Tokyo, India faltered and could only manage a bronze in Dhaka. It will also be interesting to see how the team performs under pressure at home, especially after the debacle in the World Cup where India finished ninth – the lowest position by a host team. To cope with that, Hockey India (HI) has appointed mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton. Goalkeeping coach Dennis van de Pol of the Netherlands was also brought in to hold camps in Bengaluru.

The tournament will see the return of international hockey to Chennai for the first time since the 2007 Asia Cup, which the hosts won beating South Korea in the final at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Hockey Stadium. This is also the first time the Asian Champions Trophy is being held in India. “Chennai has been a special venue for the Indian team. In 2007, the team won the Asia Cup. We are eager to play in front of the spectators here and look forward to high-octane matches,” Harmanpreet said.

Travel to Pakistan

If India fail to win the Asian Games gold, they will have to travel for the Olympic qualifiers that will take place in Lahore and Valencia in January. HI president Dilip Tirkey said on Wednesday that India will travel to Pakistan or Spain if they fail to earn the Olympic berth at the Asian Games.

“We will be trying to get the job done in Hangzhou. But, if for some reason we fail to qualify, then there are a couple of venues that have been identified for the qualifiers… So, wherever it happens, we will definitely go,” Tirkey said during a media interaction.

India squad:

Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Krishan Bahadur Pathak

Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Sumit, Jugraj Singh, Harmanpreet Singh (c), Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas

Midfielders: Hardik Singh (vc), Vivek Sagar Prasad, Manpreet Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Shamsher Singh

Forwards: Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Sukhjeet Singh, S Karthi

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