FIH Pro League: India ready for France, RSA challenges with bigger tests ahead in the season
Potchefstroom (South Africa) : The Indian men’s hockey team is all set to launch their campaign in the FIH Pro League 2022 in South Africa with many challenges confronting the team management and the players. India will take on France on Tuesday and hosts South Africa the next day, followed by return matches at the same venue next week.The FIH Pro League matches at the University of North West, Potchefstroom, are the first challenge for Graham Reid and his boys and also the first step into the season during which they will participate in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (Jul 28-Aug 8) and the Asian Games in Hangzhou (Sept 10-25) and will also prepare for next year’s senior men’s World Cup in Odisha. The team management will have to work on a multiple-peak strategy to get the boys ready for each of these challenges.The bigger challenge will be the Covid-19 pandemic and its complications physical and mental especially with players recently around 15 players testing positive during the camp at Bengaluru. Though the teams will be in a bio-bubble, South Africa too is recovering from the latest wave of Covid-19 pandemic caused by the Omicron variant and the risk is always there.Speaking about how the team has settled in South Africa ahead of the all-important matches, chief coach Reid said, “It’s great to be in South Africa. We haven’t often had the chance to play here at such a high level of competition, so we view this as a great opportunity. All the boys understand how difficult it is going to be against these teams here but we are very keen to get the new year off to a positive start.
“The Pro League challenge for India, who are playing their second season, will start with an encounter against first-timers France on Tuesday, their first match of the year. The team will take on France and hosts South Africa in alternate matches.Speaking about the distinct format of competition in the FIH Hockey Pro League 2021/22, Reid said, “There is a different dynamic in this tournament because you get some time between two matches against the same team, so it is a bit like a multi-nations tournament in some ways. It is an interesting format which adds a different aspect for teams when they are preparing for their opponents.”Ranked No. 3 in the FIH Rankings, the Indian men’s team may find France, who have come into the Pro League as a replacement for Canada who pulled out citing Covid-19pandemic, a tough customer as the French have improved a lot in recent times and are investing a lot on hockey as they are hosting the Olympics in 2024. They had recently done well in the FIOH Men’s Junior World Cup in Bhubaneswar.”We have to see what kind of team they have brought here. After their success in the World Juniors, they can’t be taken lightly,” he said. France have nothing to lose as they are in the Pro League only for this season and will be out when Australia and New Zealand return to the fold after the Covid pandemic. The experience of playing higher-ranked teams in the Pro League will always benefit their players.
The Indian side comes into the tournament carrying the mantle of Olympic bronze medallists, having finished third at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Speaking about whether this tag adds any pressure on his wards, Reid stated, “Realistically, yes, it does add some pressure, but I don’t think it is more than the pressure we put on ourselves to perform well.””Whenever a team does well at a big event like the Olympics, I think other teams take note of that and there is a target on you. It does add extra pressure, but I think the good part about that is that we tend to play our best when we are in such situations,” Reid added.Captain Manpreet Singh echoed the Chief Coach’s upbeat sentiments ahead of their opening match and said the players are excited to play their first match of the year.”The players are excited to get back on the field since the Asian Champions Trophy towards the end of last year. We want to play well and settle into a good rhythm at the beginning of this year, because 2022 is a big year for us with the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games lined up this year,” said Manpreet.After the four matches in South Africa, the Indian team will return to Bhubaneswar for their next round of matches against Spain.