India hockey team faces hosts Germany in post-pandemic re-build
As they prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, the Graham Reid-coached side will have to make up for a year without any competitive games.
Graham Reid, head coach of the Indian men’s hockey team, finds a lot of similarities between the bio-bubble environment in Krefeld, Germany, to the almost year-long confinement of him and his team at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre on the outskirts of Bengaluru. “But just to be in a different country, a different place, is refreshing, really,” Reid said. “It brings a kind of excitement to the group which is hard to recreate.”
Also hard to recreate is the adrenalin of competition, which the players will experience after more than a year. India will take on Germany on Sunday in the first of four matches of the Europe tour—two against the hosts in Germany before moving to Antwerp, Belgium, to play two matches against Great Britain. It will be the men's team’s first taste of international hockey after February 22, 2020, when it played Australia in the Pro League in Bhubaneswar.
Since then, the pandemic-enforced lockdown forced the players and coaching staff to spend most of the year in Bengaluru’s SAI centre with national camps and intra-squad matches the closest they could get to the feel of hockey.
“The boys are very excited about being back on tour. There’s a familiarity about it but also it’s so new after not having done it for 12 months. They’re really pumped; they just want to get out there and play,” Reid said from Krefeld.
With a little over five months to go for the Tokyo Olympics, time, and competitive matches, are of essence for the Australian coach to shape the team up for the postponed event. Top sides like world champions Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and Great Britain have got a head start, having resumed their Pro League matches since last September. India, ranked fourth in the world, will have to wait till April to play the Pro League. Reason why Reid looks at these four matches as more than just a welcome return to the sport for his team.
“We’ll be using it to gauge where we’re at. The matches are crucial because what it does is give us feedback of where we are at the moment and what we need to do between now and the Olympics. Normally, during competition, you get that feedback on a more regular basis so you can make corrections as you go; whereas we’ve had to do that from a very subjective point of view within Bengaluru. It’s been an interesting process,” Reid said.
From March to early June since being stuck in Bengaluru, players were not even allowed outdoor training despite being within the SAI premises. After the homesick players were sent back home, a few of them, including captain Manpreet Singh, tested positive for the virus upon returning for the camp in August. Wading through the various obstacles, Reid worked towards fine-tuning the skills of the players at an individual and group level. The Olympic silver-winning Australian knows that the hours spent on the training field during camps and internal games are little match to the minutes of a competitive outing.
“In the earlier days of lockdown, we were very much focused on individual skill, but since we’ve come back in the new year we’ve been focusing on our group exercises and tactical play—things like attacking and defensive transition, what we do when we lose the ball, what we do when we win the ball and such aspects.
“But we can talk a lot about our internal games, which is what we’ve been able to do for the last 12 months. But the feedback loop, if you like, of competition is what these four matches against world-class teams will provide. You can then start making more improvements more quickly,” Reid said.
The 22-member squad in Europe, led by goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, is missing some key names, notably captain Manpreet, drag-flickers Rupinderpal Singh and Varun Kumar, and forward SV Sunil. The coach hopes his players can shake off the rust as quickly as possible when they press the play button on Sunday.
“There is what you expect, and what you hope,” Reid said with a smile. “I’m hoping they’ll get the gist of the game and the speed of play and everything else quite quickly. I’m very comfortable with where they’re at physically. So now it’s about applying that into match situations.
“At the moment, I’m just looking forward to them getting out and playing and allowing them to do what they love again.”