Indian men's hockey coach Graham Reid is hoping a below par performance at the Asian Champions Trophy last month will inspire a renewed intensity from his side as they gear up to play their first competitive matches of the year in the FIH Pro League a couple of weeks from now in South Africa.
When they competed at the Asian Champions Trophy in December last year, few might have expected the team to struggle as much as it did. They had gone into the tournament not just as two-time defending champions but on the back of a historic Olympic bronze medal at Tokyo just a few months before. Of their opponents, just one -- Japan -- had competed in the Olympics. Yet in Dhaka, the team had stumbled to a 5-3 loss to Japan in the semifinal and then eked out a 4-3 win over Pakistan in the bronze medal match.
It was a chastening result, but one Reid says was necessary. After winning a bronze in Tokyo, their first Olympic medal in 41 years, Reid knew that a slip up in standards was a possibility. "After the bronze medal match, me and Manpreet Singh (captain of the Indian team) came to each other and said this isn't the end of our journey. This is just the start. That's been our message from the start. We have to take our opportunity from here," Reid recalled in a virtual interaction on Friday.
However, the slackening did occur. And that's where the loss to Japan in Dhaka might be the jolt the team needed. "It's sometimes difficult to motivate (players after they've come off a career high). You have to be put in a situation where you learn. No one liked to lose in semis of Asian CT. But you have to experience that situation to learn from it. We learned that this is what happens if we don't treat every game with utmost importance. I hated it as well, but it isn't unless you make a mistake that you realise what you have done," Reid said.
Reid suggests there's no sense of complacency in the side that will play France and South Africa, compared to the one that went to Dhaka at least. Following the retirement of a clutch of senior players post the Olympics, there had been a sense that the team that travelled to Dhaka was one that was compiled keeping the 2024 Games in mind. It was mostly a new look squad -- just two players over the age of 26 -- and without the services of FIH goalkeeper of the year PR Sreejesh.
Sreejesh is back in the squad that's travelling to South Africa as is the core of the side that medalled in Tokyo. "When we went to Bangladesh, we were able to try new players. We gave them that opportunity there. We of course now need to bring players who didn't have a game since the Olympics. The message from this is that these (Pro League Games) are really tough games and so I want players to understand how seriously we are taking these games. It's about getting players who haven't had an opportunity since the Olympics another chance. It's very important to have the core group (Olympic) that's why we want them to be back. It's really good competition for these guys to come back to. It's been quite a long time."
On paper, India's Pro League matches aren't the hardest challenges. In Potchefstroom they will take on South Africa, who finished bottom of their group in the Olympics and France who didn't even qualify. Yet, like Reid suggests, there's a reason to avoid being overly self-assured. "South Africa will be keen to continue with what they started in Tokyo. There they beat Germany and after that they are coming off a gold in the African Cup of Nations Championships. France have a very good young side (Their junior team beat India to win bronze in the Junior World Cup in Bhubaneswar last year). It will be interesting to see which team France picks. It's going to be two very difficult games. It will be challenging," Reid said.
Reid also knows that the matches in South Africa will provide the side with momentum at the start of a busy year in which India will play the Commonwealth Games, Olympic qualifier Asian Games and then the World Cup at the start of 2023. "They will let us know where we need to work going into the bigger tournaments like the Commonwealth and Asian Games. We can't underestimate any team this year."