When the India men’s hockey team for the Tokyo Olympics was announced last week, one of the most notable omissions was Akashdeep Singh. The management chose to go with young untested blood in place of the 26-year-old seasoned striker for the biggest event this year.
While Mandeep Singh and Lalit Kumar Upadhyay have played more than 100 internationals each respectively and have reasonable big-match experience, the trio of Gurjant Singh, Dilpreet Singh and Shamsher Singh have combined caps of just 97 internationals. Shamsher has featured in a meagre six games and scored a lone goal.
Statistically and experience wise Akashdeep merited a place in the side. He was part of the Rio Olympics and also won a gold at the 2014 Asian Games and silver in 2016 Champions Trophy. Although his form wavered a bit recently — which happens to every athlete — he can still make those dribbles, passes and runs efficiently. So when head coach Graham Reid was queried on what forced the management to drop him, the Australian indirectly hinted his overall work rate on the pitch was a deciding factor.
“I don’t like to comment on specific selections,” Reid began during a media interaction on Friday. “Heat and humidity in Tokyo, we need to play two back-to-back games and that doesn’t necessarily relate to a specific player in this instance but that was definitely an important part. The other part is 16 players, that’s something that I feel people forget. Normally we are used to having 18 and the flexibility it provides. With 16 you have less of that. For me the ability to play across multiple lines was important.
“For example if a key player gets injured in the 2 or 3 days during the Olympics, then you need to have a player who can play across attack, defence and midfield. The other important part of modern hockey is that the game is about off-ball skills. A lot of the game we play is about off-ball stuff. We play a game that involves a lot of pressing, running, enthusiasm and energy. We’ve selected guys who have those attributes. So often we see someone is great on the ball but we don’t necessarily see the work that they do off the ball. And the work they do off the ball is a very important part of the way we play the game or want us to play. Things like team-first mentality is also important, the guys we’ve selected, they really are team players.”
Skipper Manpreet Singh felt the young strike force has been together for a while and can get the job done in Tokyo. “Actually, in the last three-four years, we have had the same team. The strikers are experienced. They have been doing well, that's why they have been picked. Our striker force will play an important role and score goals.”
Just like most international teams, the Indians have been confined to their training base and head to Tokyo with very little competitive action. Reid felt the team went through a similar phase in 2019 but managed to beat top teams. “I’ll just give you a couple of examples why I’m comfortable and confident about this Indian team. We have had two very good tours this year. One of the things that I talk to the guys a lot about is the importance of our daily training environment, how important it is and why we need to be playing close to Pro League style of play.
"In every one of those games, we try to make sure the targets we wanted to hit in terms in intensity are achieved. That was this year. The previous example was the period between 2019-2020 where we had not played too much of the tough teams in 2019. We managed to come out and play those Pro League games with just the daily training environment. We beat teams likes Australia, Netherlands and Belgium. It gives the teams the confidence (heading into Tokyo).”