A new season of FIH Pro League (Men) is set to begin with India, Spain and New Zealand facing each other in Bhubaneswar from October 28.
This is the fourth edition of the league, which will see nine nations fighting for the title. India had finished third previous season. But this time, the format has changed and a new tournament will also take place alongside.
Here's the lowdown on all you need to know about the tournament and the Indian team.
What are the changes in format?
Yes, the new season will see a couple of changes to the Pro league format. Each team will play the other twice for a total of 16 matches, but this time there will be no home and away matches.
The Pro League has been split into multiple mini-tournaments -- as mentioned above, the first one involves India, Spain and New Zealand in Bhubaneswar. Basically, a set of three teams will meet at one venue and play each other twice.
This decision was taken to reduce the financial and logistical issues like travel time and minimise the burden on players.
The second change is that this edition will see a promotion-relegation system. Teams (both men and women) finishing last will be relegated and the top teams from a newly introduced tournament -- FIH Hockey Nations Cup will be promoted to play the next season of the league.
Each win will earn three points. In case of a draw, teams will share one point each but winning team via shootout will be give an extra bonus point.
Are there any other perks of winning the Pro League title?
There will be. The primary aim of teams this season would be to avoid relegation. The perks start from the subsequent seasons. According to FIH CEO Thierry Weil, winners of Season 5 and 6 will directly qualify for the 2026 World Cup and the winners of Season 7 and 8 will make it to the 2028 Olympics.
Which teams are playing the fourth edition of Pro League?
Apart from India, teams participating in the men's Pro League are Netherlands - who are the defending champions - Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Spain.
Who are in India's squad for the first four matches?
Head coach Graham Reid named a 22-member squad for the matches against New Zealand and Spain.
Goalkeepers: Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Sreejesh Parattu Raveendran.
Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh (captain), Amit Rohidas, Jugraj Singh, Mandeep Mor, Nilam Sanjeep Xess.
Midfielders: Sumit, Manpreet Singh (vice-captain), Hardik Singh, Moirangthem Rabichandra Singh, Shamsher Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Rajkumar Pal, Mohd. Raheel Mouseen.
Forwards: S. Karthi, Mandeep Singh, Abhishek, Dilpreet Singh, Sukhjeet Singh.
One big change is that Coach Reid made Harmanpreet the captain while regular skipper Manpreet will act as deputy. Reid said that decision has been taken to increase the leadership skills of the group.
While most of these players have national experience, Reid rewarded a couple of youngsters for their impressive performances over the year. Forward S Karthi earned the call up after a good showing early this year in the Asia Cup. Midfielder Mohammed Raheel will be making his debut for the senior national team. He represented India in the FIH 5's tournament in Lausanne in June where he scored the most number of goals and was named player of the tournament.
What will be India's plan against Spain and New Zealand?
Reid and the team will hope to make maximum use of the four matches as preparations for the upcoming men's World Cup, which will take place in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela from January 13 to 29.
Both Spain and New Zealand are quality teams, having qualified for the World Cup. Spain are in fact placed in the same group as India in the World Cup, so far as preparations go, Reid couldn't have asked for better timing and the teams.
On the tactical front, it is unlikely Reid will deviate from his usual method for the new season, which served the team well over the past few years. He prefers a fast start, with Indian forwards and midfielders pressing their opponents high up the pitch.
Scoring goals via penalty corners has been the team's biggest strength and Harmanpreet will once again be the key. He will aim to start from where he left off last season, where he scored the most number of goals in Pro League -- 18 and added nine more at the Commonwealth Games where India earned a silver medal.
India's forward line-up is loaded with exciting talents as well as experienced players. Abhishek made a name for himself last season with his finishing skills while Mandeep Singh has scored 94 goals in 185 matches. Karthi and Sukhjeet Singh are young prospects who'll look to bolster their place in the team for the World Cup.
However, it's the off the ball stuff that Reid will want to work on. At the Commonwealth Games, India conceded too many goals against top teams like England (four in group stage), South Africa (two in semifinal) and Australia (seven in the final).
Last time when India and Spain met in the Pro League, it was a proper goal fest. India won the first match 5-4 in Bhubaneswar but Spain made amends in the next game, winning it 5-3. India conceded eight goals over a two-legged affair, which did not please Reid at all.
India scored the most number of goals in the last season of the Pro League - 62.
Most number of goals from penalty strokes - 4.
Most number of goals from penalty corners - 27
What is the schedule for India's matches?
India vs New Zealand on 28 October.
India vs Spain on 30 October.
India vs New Zealand on 4 November.
India vs Spain on 6 November.
Matches will take place at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar and will begin at 7.10 PM IST, they will be shown live on Star Sports and Disney+ Hotstar.