With the Indian men's hockey team playing their first match of the 2021/22 Pro League (PL) season against France in Potchefstroom in South Africa on Tuesday, here's what you can look forward to:
Playing in the PL has no direct impact on a team's qualification for either the World Cup or the Olympics. However what the tournament does provide for the Indian team is international competition with eight of the strongest teams in the world. Although Olympic silver medalists Australia and New Zealand have opted out of the tournament owing to concerns over travelling during the COVID pandemic, India will be playing two matches each against Olympic champions Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, England, Spain, South Africa and France.
While the tournament was originally supposed to be played in the home and away format, COVID restrictions will result in India playing both legs of their matches against Spain, Germany, Argentina and England at Bhubaneswar and the remainder overseas.
Why is this exposure necessary?
India are the highest ranked side in Asia and prior to the PL, the side rarely had a chance to compete against top ranked sides in Europe and South America - sides who they would eventually be competing against in the big ticket events. When India returned to the Pro League fold in 2020 they would go on to beat sides like Netherlands, Australia (on penalties), Belgium and Argentina - in what would provide a template for success at the Tokyo Olympics.
Now, while the Olympics are a while away, there's no shortage of important competitions coming up. The PL will be the first matches of a busy international season for the Indian men's hockey team. The side will be competing in the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games - which will be a qualification event for the 2024 Olympics and then the Hockey World Cup in the start of 2023.
How seriously is the team taking it?
The PL offers the chance for the Indian team to try and test its playing squad ahead of the important tournaments. However it's a measure of how seriously national coach Graham Reid is taking early matches - against France and South Africa, probably the two weakest teams in the competition - that India will be playing close to a full strength squad. This is in contrast to the last tournament the side played - the Asian Champions Trophy in Dhaka - in which all but a few players were different to the ones who had won the Olympic bronze for India.
. "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 (PL 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," coach Reid says.
What sort of competition can the team expect in South Africa?
India start off their Pro League campaign against South Africa (WR 10) and France (WR 13). France, in fact, only made the tournament following the pull out of Australia, New Zealand and finally Canada. However, neither side can be taken lightly.
South Africa was impressive in the Tokyo Olympics, scoring four goals against eventual champions Belgium, three in a 3-5 loss to Netherlands and beat fourth place finisher Germany 4-3. France meanwhile are building a new squad with the Paris Olympics in mind. After an impressive finish in the Junior World Cup where they beat India twice en-route to a bronze medal, it's likely that a number of those players will be a part of the senior squad.
Reid is expecting a tough challenge. "South Africa are someone who are on the up and coming. It will be interesting to see what sort of team France pick after their junior world cup team did so well in Bhubaneshwar. Obviously, they will have some of the young guys who are now much more experienced. It is going to be two very difficult games," he says.
What will be India's expectation from these matches?
India (WR 3) will undoubtedly start off as favourites against both France and South Africa.
Despite playing at home, South African coach Gareth Ewing announced on Monday that his side would be missing several players owing to work commitments. "Our focus will be on getting our defence right and then seeing how we can compete over 60 minutes," Ewing said.
France coach Frederic Soyez too played down his side's chances. Unlike the Indian team who have been training together since the start of the year, Soyez said French players had only a little time together as a team. "Most players were playing indoor hockey till last week so we aren't 100 percent (as a team). We want to be able to perform but we know where we are right now," he says. Although Soyez said that 8 of the players in his squad were from the one that beat the Indian team at the junior team at the world cup last year, those performances would have nothing to bear on the current task.
India, meanwhile, will look to live up to their tag as Olympic bronze medalists and their current World rank. While Reid admits the side will be under pressure to perform, he says that will only help them in the tougher competitions they will face later this year. "The pressure [of being favourites] isn't anything more than the expectations we put on ourselves. It is a little bit of extra pressure which comes when you have done well at a tournament. But the good part is that teams will always play their best against you and that's how you improve," he says