With just over two months to go for the World Cup, the Indian men's hockey team began their preparations with the new season of FIH Pro League. The matches against New Zealand and Spain in Bhubaneswar were high in quality and intensity, with India being the slightly better team compared to the other two. Both Spain and India have eight points on board, but the hosts have a better goal difference (three).
Here's a brief review of the Bhubaneshwar leg from India's perspective:
Who were the most impressive players?
Krishan Pathak, first and foremost. The goalkeeper was the highlight for India from these four matches. He made 19 saves in four matches, including a standout performance against Spain on Sunday while playing all four quarters.
Pathak has made it clear that he can be relied upon by his team and there shouldn't be over dependence on PR Sreejesh. Two equally solid goalkeepers going into the World Cup is indeed a big positive.
Hardik Singh - the underrated midfield mainstay for this team. If India are to go deep into the World Cup, Hardik's offensive and defensive nous will be crucial. Manpreet Singh put in a terrific shift against New Zealand in the 7-4 win but Hardik got the player of the match for a reason. Twice India came from behind and defeated New Zealand and both times Hardik played a major role.
Manpreet and Hardik in the midfield will give a lot of confidence to Reid, especially in the absence of Vivek Sagar Prasad, who might miss more matches due to foot injury.
Sukhjeet Singh. Unlike Selvam Karthi, Sukhjeet played in all the four matches. The forward might've scored only one goal in four matches, but he gave a hard time to the other teams' defence with his dribbling skills. He's energetic on the ball, always looking to create with his stick and his link up play with Mandeep on the front was largely successful.
Honourable mention: Indian veterans still formidable
While the above youngsters proved their worth in the four matches, three senior players also served a reminder of their importance to the Indian squad.
Harmanpreet scored six goals, five from penalty corners.
Manpreet was outstanding in the midfield, especially in the last two matches.
Mandeep's goals helped India make a superb comeback in the opening match against New Zealand.
The trio performed their tasks, as they have been doing for years, and made an impact when the team needed it most showing the value of experience.
Where do India need to improve?
Defence and discipline.
The story of the first three matches have been defensive errors, especially the avoidable mistakes. But there was an improvement on this front in the final match against Spain where the team managed to keep Spain at bay for almost three quarters. Till Indian receiving cards spoiled the show and allowed Max Caldas' team to take the advantage.
In three of the four matches, India were shown more number of cards than their opponents. Indian players were shown yellow cards (players being out for at least five minutes) thrice in the four matches. India could've earned a well-deserved win against Spain on Sunday, but for the two yellow cards which made it tough to defend a two-goal lead.
Have umpires become stricter?
When ESPN asked coach Graham Reid about cards and penalty corners that were being given more frequently in these four matches, he said he doesn't have much clarity, although his words were: "We are giving away corners to everything, we are giving away cards to everything."
One particular rule -- deliberately playing the ball over the backline - has come under heavy scrutiny in these four matches. The rule states that if a player is deemed to play the ball over the backline intentionally then the umpire should award a penalty corner to the opposite team.
Two instances involving Jugraj in India's second match against Spain highlighted the problem. In the third quarter, Jugraj was defending in his half on the right corner, he did well to tackle the ball which went over the backline. But the umpire interpreted it as deliberately playing over the backline and awarded a penalty corner to Spain.
Minutes later, Jugraj was involved in a tussle with Rafael Vilallonga. Both players clashed as Jugraj tried to snatch the ball away from Vilallonga. The umpire deemed it to be a foul by Jugraj and sent him away by showing a yellow. A yellow card for the challenge seemed harsh at that moment.
Now, these rules have been there before but the umpires have followed it more diligently in these four matches. The coaches of all three teams noted that they were still getting used to it, but defending would be tougher now as a lot is being left to the interpretation of the umpire.
What next for India?
Later this month, India will head to Australia play a five-match series and might also play another just before the World Cup in Rourkela. The matches against Australia, the best team in men's hockey right now, will be extremely important with a view on the World Cup in January.
It will also be interesting to see what kind of squad Reid picks for these games. It's unlikely that he will rest his key players just before the World Cup, but there's also scope to test players who haven't gotten a chance yet to improve squad depth.