The Indian men's hockey team will see the start of a new chapter on Friday as newly-appointed head coach Craig Fulton takes charge of the team at the upcoming FIH Pro League games. They will play against Belgium and Great Britain in London, followed by matches against the Netherlands and Argentina in Eindhoven.
While the coach and the support staff might be new, the team led by Harmanpreet Singh have a good mix of regular senior players and talented youngsters.
What to expect from the new coach?
Fulton, who was the assistant coach of the Belgian men's hockey team and played a big part in their rise to the top, only joined the Indian team a month back. He wouldn't have had enough time to imprint all his ideas onto the players, but what stood out during his first press conference was when he spoke about his 'defend to win' approach.
"I think philosophy-wise I'd like to defend to win. I'd like to have our defensive structures in place because that's the first step of attacking. If we try to play a counter-attacking style it doesn't help if you can't defend, so you would never win the ball back to counter-attack. At the same time what happens if you are 2-0 down? You can't sit in your own half, and you have to make the game then. You're going to have to high press, you're going to have to put the opposition under pressure. We're going to need to do both. I'm a very forward, attacking coach. I like to score goals, but I also like to do a very solid defensive play," Fulton said.
Under previous coach Graham Reid, India's attacking brand of hockey stood out. The focus was on winning the ball high up the pitch and try to gain advantage by winning penalty corners, and it helped the team had a world class dragflicker in Harmanpreet. Fulton is aware that high pressing is present in the team's DNA, but he also wants his team to be equally good while playing deep and on counterattacks. "I think we've gone in tactically to our own trainings and what we're trying to achieve, but it's still early days for that. From a tactical view, we still need to keep adapting. We've got two ways of playing. We always have the high presses in the DNA of the Indian men's team, but the half-court and playing a little deeper is something we need to get really confident with and it brought some results at Rourkela for sure," he added.
While the team may not see a complete change in style, it will be interesting to see how the players adapt to Fulton's idea of 'defensive hockey'. In a way, the upcoming matches against top teams will be a perfect platform for the players to start implementing their coach's plans. At least, the basic tenets of his philosophy. The likes of Belgium, Great Britain and the Netherlands will put India under pressure with their attacking play and intensity.
What's at stake in the Pro League?
The big test for Fulton will be the Asian Games in September, where India will have the chance to qualify for the Paris Olympics by winning gold. Qualifying for the Olympics is the main objective for the new coach, and in preparation for the same, the Pro League games will be extremely useful.
However, India are also currently topping the Pro League table. They played eight matches at home, winning five outright and suffering just one loss. In their previous Pro League 'mini tournament' at Rourkela, India were unbeaten in four matches against Australia and world champions Germany.
Teams generally use Pro League matches to test out their bench strength, find new playing strategies and maintain the fitness standards. Winning the league doesn't come with any added perks, at least not in this season, but India will want to be in the mix for the title. Eight away matches will not be an easy task but again this is also one of the aspects that Fulton spoke about in terms of improving. "I always thought that they were more dangerous at home than they were away. But now we'll have to really challenge that notion. The objective is to try and be very, very consistent away from home. So obviously with not having the Indian support and playing conditions and the weather and everything, maybe it could be something that we need to focus more on."
If the team goes on to push all the way for the Pro League title, it would be a good response to a disappointing home World Cup performance. India are halfway there, they need to build up on the momentum they got in their home matches.
Who are the players to watch out for?
Fulton selected a 24-member strong squad for the eight matches, which also includes the likes of Krishan Pathak, Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay who missed the previous Pro League matches. Simranjeet Singh, who played a pivotal role in India's bronze medal exploits at the Tokyo Olympics, is also making his comeback into the squad after missing the World Cup after a series of injury and fitness issues.
Dilpreet Singh impressed massively in the midfield when India played Australia and Germany in March. Interim coach David John used Dilpreet in the midfield instead of as a forward, which worked well in terms of pressing and link up with the forwards.
In the absence of senior players like Mandeep and Lalit, Sukhjeet Singh and S Karthi combined well up top. In four matches against Australia and Germany, Sukhjeet and Karthi scored three goals each while also assisting each other. Now that Mandeep and Lalit are back, and with the addition of Simranjeet, it will be interesting to see how Fulton will use the forwards.
Former captain Manpreet Singh is named as a defender again, but it's not clear whether it's going to be his new position or a temporary change in role. Manpreet, when used in the backline in the previous Pro League matches, did the job, so maybe Fulton is banking on his experience to get his defensive structures right.