Indian hockey team will be without the services of Varun Kumar in their Olympic qualifiers against Russia and head coach Graham Reid has expressed his disappointment over the youngster not being able to showcase his talent. Varun injured his shoulder and right bicep in training earlier this week.
The India men’s hockey team will be without the services of Varun Kumar in their Olympic qualifiers against Russia and had it been an opponent tougher than the world No. 22 side, losing Varun to injury two days before the match would have felt like a jolt for the Indian team, as far as the most improved aspect of their play - the defence is concerned. The Punjab defender had become a pivotal part of India's drag-flick battery and his injury will surely make coach Graham Reid tweak his initial plans before the ball rolls in the first game of the two-match qualifier at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar on Friday.
Varun injured his shoulder and right bicep in training earlier this week and failed to recover sufficiently. Veteran midfielder Birendra Lakra has replaced him. The 24-year-old’s experience may appear minuscule in front of Lakra's 180-plus caps, but he was talked about as being part of India's four-pronged drag-flick attack for the qualifiers including Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, and Amit Rohidas among others in the 18-member squad picked initially. Varun's penalty-corner skills tilted the scales in his favour during team selection to ensure India had enough drag-flick options at hand.
"It's difficult when we have 20 players in Belgium on our last trip and we have to bring it down to 18, so you make some decisions with fine lines in between. (By selecting Varun) We were also trying to make sure that penalty corners (PC) were covered," Reid told Timesofindia.com.
India's PC drills, thus, may see a few changes even if the defensive structure remains unaffected with the experience of Lakra coming in which the coach has stated is reassuring for the team. According to the Hockey India's press release, Varun's injury will take a few weeks to heal completely and Reid, who calls the young defender a ‘good citizen’, feels sorry for him as the defender will miss an opportunity to showcase his skills further.
"Really disappointing for Varun. He has been working hard, not only on his game but everything else, also short corners, and is really a 'good citizen', (that is) how I like to call him, someone who is very team-first mentality," said Reid, who took over as the chief coach of India's men's team in April this year.
Harmanpreet Singh will be entrusted with the role of the first-choice flicker on penalty corners as he will hope to continue his fine form from the tour of Europe before the qualifiers, with a near 100 percent conversion rate against Spain and world champions Belgium.
Under the new Olympic qualifying format introduced by the FIH, India and Russia will play two matches, with the winner (aggregate) qualifying for the Olympics with the event of a tie on points and goal difference resulting in a shootout to decide who goes to Tokyo next year. The first match will be played on Friday and the second on Saturday. In their last meeting with Russia during the FIH World Series Finals at the same venue, world No. 5 India enjoyed a complete goal-fest, winning 10-0.