VR Raghunath believes that the Indian men’s hockey team is mentally prepared for the FIH Olympic Qualifier matches which will be played against Russia next month. Raghunath heaped praise on the drag-flickers in the 18-man Indian squad and also talked about the benefits of playing FIH Pro League.
Hockey India recently declared the 18-member Indian men’s hockey team for the upcoming FIH Olympic Qualifiers against Russia which will be played at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar on November 1 and 2. The selectors decided to leave out senior defender Birendra Lakra and experienced striker SV Sunil was made the vice-captain of the side which will be led by Manpreet Singh.
With only a week to go for the crucial games, former India international VR Raghunath, in an exclusive interview with SportsCafe, has said that there is a good balance in the squad. He also went on to say that there is a good combination of youth and seniors but all the players have decent experience behind them and are mentally ready for the pressure games.
“The squad looks really great and all the boys have played a good number of matches. Rupinder has come back into the team and we don’t see very new faces. They have made a good combined team and the junior players have also matured enough,” Raghunath told SportsCafe.
“It is always a challenge for India whenever they play the qualifier. You have to win the Asian Games otherwise you have to play the qualifiers. It is always tricky. This year India are playing back to back matches. It is good that India got a lower-ranked team – Russia – but we can’t take it easy. The boys will go hard on.
"Another advantage is playing at the home ground and they will have the crowd support. They are mentally prepared and the sports psychologist has been doing well in the past five-six years. There shouldn’t be any problem.”
Raghunath was in Bhubaneswar during the FIH Series Finals and had watched a few of the matches from the stands. India’s opponents for the Olympic Qualifiers – Russia – was also a part of the tournament and Raghunath has said that Russia will play with a defensive mindset and will try to hold India for the first 20-30 minutes of the match.
“Russia will try to hold India for quite some time. It will be very challenging for them to do the same for a long time. They might hold India for 20-20 minutes. They will pack their defence and defending will be their key strategy,” the Karnataka player mentioned.
The Indian team will have the services of Rupinder Pal Singh, who made a comeback into the team after an injury layoff earlier this year. The senior drag-flicker will be leading the penalty corner specialists in the team which includes players like Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas. Raghunath, who had played with Rupinder as well and was also an accomplished drag-flicker himself, said that this the best combination since he and Rupinder last played together.
“I think I left the Indian team, this is the best combination that India have got now. These guys have played with me for a long time and they know what level they should be in on the matchday. It will be an add-on to the side that Rupinder is back in the side. Rupinder and Harmanpreet know the value and the contribution to the team by both of them,” the former India defender stated.
With Russia as the opponents for the Qualifiers, Team India is expected to make it to the Olympics easily by winning the two games in Bhubaneswar and it will be important for the Indian team to start thinking about the sporting extravaganza right after the end of the Qualifiers. Hockey India has decided that the Indian men will be a part of the FIH Pro League from its second season and that will be important for them to have a proper match practice ahead of the Tokyo Games. Raghunath is of the opinion that playing the Pro League will help the Indians analyse the performance of the top international sides.
“I think it is a very good idea (to play the Pro League). Every month India can analyse the opponents who will be on the Olympic list. India can keep the track of all the European and South American teams so that you don’t go out of touch. You know exactly where you stand and where the other team is standing, what are the plus and minus in the present situation. It’s a good move and there is more advantage in playing the Pro League,” Raghunath concluded.