Indian hockey is back at Chennai's newly furbished Mayor Radhakrishnan Hockey Stadium, for the Asian Champions Trophy, which begins on Thursday, August 3 and will run till the 13th.
Over the years, international hockey in India became exclusive to the state of Odisha with the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar and the Birsa Munda Stadium in Rourkela hosting high profile matches, including two World Cups.
The decision to give the tournament to Chennai, which last hosted an international tournament more than 15 years back, is indeed a welcome move in keeping up with the ideals of taking the sport to various parts of the country.
India's opponents and format
All the top hockey nations in Asia will be in action in Chennai, including Pakistan. In total, six national teams have been clubbed into one pool and they will play each other in a single round-robin format. The top four teams will progress to the semifinals while the remaining two teams will play a playoff match for the fifth/sixth spot.
India vs China on August 3 at 8.30 PM.
India vs Japan on August 4 at 8.30 PM.
India vs Malaysia on August 6 at 8.30 PM.
India vs. South Korea on August 7 at 8.30 PM.
India vs. Pakistan on August 9 at 8.30 PM.
The semifinals are scheduled on August 11 while the final is on August 13.
What's at stake for India?
The Asian Champions Trophy comes right before the same teams head to China for the Asian Games, starting on September 23. Basically, all the teams will use the tournament as preparations for their Asian Games campaign, which is also a pathway to qualify for the Olympic Games. The gold medal winners in hockey at Asian Games automatically make it to the Paris Games next year.
India's head coach, Craig Fulton, will also want to get a better idea of the squad, with this tournament being the last chance to experiment and find out more about his players. Although it must be noted that the core of the team has been playing together for some time, and no new names are in the mix.
While the larger context of the tournament is the preparation for the Asian Games, this is also a chance for Fulton and India to win a trophy in front of a home crowd. The disappointment of the World Cup is still fresh so this an opportunity to make things right for the fans and the players themselves and gain some momentum ahead of the all-important Asian Games. India, being the top-ranked nation among all the participating teams and the only one with Pro League experience, have it in them to go all the way and win the tournament.
However, in the past, India struggled to make it count in the latter stages at the Asian level. In the previous Champions Trophy, India lost in the semifinals and before that, they couldn't make it to the final of 2018 Asian Games. On both the occasions, India topped the group stage without a defeat but faltered in the semifinals.
It's time to change the pattern.
India's form and Fulton's reign so far
India come into the tournament after a decent run at the four-nation invitational tournament in Spain, where they beat the Netherlands (this season's Pro League champions) to finish third. Fulton, who earlier took charge of the national team in May, had a mixed start to his reign. He began with eight away matches in Pro League playing against the likes of Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Argentina. They ended up with four wins and four defeats.
While there's a change in style from Reid's tenure, the idea being 'defend to attack', Fulton is yet to put his mark on the team. In his first eight matches, the team conceded 19 goals while scoring 20. The defence has seen improvement in Spain, where they stopped the likes of Netherlands and England from scoring more than one goal in the group matches.
The upcoming five matches (or more) should see the team completely adapting to Fulton's style. Hopefully, the head coach has got enough time by now to imprint his ideas on the players.
Players to watch out for
As is the norm, captain Harmanpreet Singh can't be ignored. The dragflick specialist, one of the best in the world, has been in superb form, scoring thrice in four matches in Spain. He also ended up as the highest goal-scorer in the latest Pro League season, netting 18 goals. Like mentioned above, he also has a thing or two to prove after a poor World Cup outing at home.
There's also local boy Selvam Karthi and his natural goal scoring instincts. Karthi picked up the sport in Ariyalur and became one of the best young talents to come up from Tamil Nadu. He has a chance to showcase his skills in front of his home crowd and seal a place in the Asian Games squad.
Akashdeep Singh missed the Spain tour as Fulton wanted to try others forwards but got a chance to join the squad for the Asian Champions Trophy. A lively presence in the attacking areas with plenty of big tournament experience, Akashdeep will hope to impress Fulton and guarantee his name in the Asian Games squad.
Goalkeepers: PR Sreejesh, Krishan Bahadur Pathak
Defenders: Jarmanpreet Singh, Sumit, Jugraj Singh, Harmanpreet Singh (C), Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas.
Midfielders: Hardik Singh (vice-captain), Vivek Sagar Prasad, Manpreet Singh, Nilakanta Sharma and Shamsher Singh.
Forwards: Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Sukhjeet Singh, S Karthi.
The Asian Champions Trophy Chennai 2023 will be live on Star Sports and FanCode. It will also be live streamed on watch.hockey for viewing outside of India.