Indian hockey’s Fulton era begins with need to phase out fading stars and blood fresh faces

In happier times, when he effortlessly dribbled past players on a hockey turf, Simranjeet Singh binged on Messi videos; visualising the Argentine maestro with a hockey stick or him in the former Barcelona star’s club colours.

Quite naturally, Simranjeet turned to his other favourite sport even in times of despair. It wasn’t Messi he looked up to, however.

When a nagging knee injury forced the attacking midfielder, one of India’s heroes during the Olympic medal-winning campaign, away from the sport, he turned to Messi’s former Barcelona teammate, Neymar Jr, for inspiration.

“For me, Neymar served as an inspiration as despite getting injured numerous times, he has always made a strong comeback,” Simranjeet, who has played in just one international match since the Tokyo Games (against Pakistan in Asia Cup last year, where he again got injured), said last month.

On Friday, the 26-year-old is set to script a comeback of his own when India take on Olympic champions Belgium in the FIH Pro League in London.

Simranjeet’s return is one of the many storylines to follow during the European swing over the next fortnight, when India will face Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands and Argentina.

Multiple storylines

The string of matches against quality opponents marks the beginning of the Craig Fulton era in Indian hockey, serves as a test for young players like S Karthi and Rabichandra Moirangthem who have impressed at home but are untested away and gives some of the fading stars like Lalit Upadhyay, Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh one last chance to show they still have something left in them.

Lalit, Akashdeep and Mandeep were among the eight players from India’s disastrous World Cup campaign who were dropped for the Pro League matches against Australia and Germany last month. At that point, a shake up in the squad felt like the most logical thing to do and interim coach David John’s decision was justified after the newcomers in the team seamlessly filled their shoes.

India remained unbeaten in four games against world hockey’s powerhouses but more than the result, it was the manner in which the team played that caught the attention. India, who looked scared and uninventive at the World Cup, were fearless and adventurous although the Pro League lacks the pressure and tension of the World Cup.

Surprise inclusion of veterans

Yet, the matches provided a blueprint of sorts for Fulton. Be it the bewildering skills of Sukhjeet Singh, whose 360-degree turn to score a goal against Australia showed the depths of his potential, or the ability of Selvam Karthi to pop in at the right places inside the ‘D’; deploying former captain Manpreet Singh as a deep defender, thus instilling a sense of calmness in the back line, or unleashing the full potential of Hardik Singh by playing him through the centre instead of wings, which added heft to the midfield that got rolled over cheaply at the World Cup.

Even though they weren’t always in control of the proceedings, John’s ad-hoc ideas gave India some direction in the build-up to the all-important Asian Games, where a spot for next year’s Paris Olympics is at stake. And those plans seemed to rely heavily on fresh, young faces.

So, the inclusion of the likes of Upadhyay, Akashdeep, Mandeep and even Amit Rohidas for the European tour came as a surprise. The opaqueness in picking the team means the selection committee hasn’t shared its reasons for this decision, and the only explanation can be that Fulton is travelling with a bloated squad. Instead of the usual 18-member team for tournaments, India have 24 members in the squad perhaps so that the new coach can look at as many players as possible before settling down on his preferred combination.

Focus on strengthening defence

Fulton has made the strengthening of the defence as his priority for India. It’s hardly surprising given that the Belgium team that won the 2018 World Cup and Tokyo Olympics – of which Fulton was the assistant coach – had a reputation of being defensively solid, although they weren’t necessarily a team in the defensive mould.

India’s counterattacking style of play often left them exposed at the back and the South African has said he’d like to have ‘defensive structures in place because that’s the first step of attacking.’

It’s fitting that Fulton’s first match as India coach will be against his former side. He exuded confidence before leaving for London, pointing out that India has ‘all the ingredients’. “It’s more a case of being able to be composed enough to do it and execute,” Fulton said.

Composure and execution is what Simranjeet – whose under-pressure assists have contributed to India’s two major achievements in the last decade, the Junior World Cup title and the Tokyo bronze – brings to the table. “I am super happy to return to the squad,” he said. “I never gave up.”

India’s schedule

May 26: vs Belgium (7.10pm)

May 27: vs Great Britain (5.10pm)

June 2: vs Belgium (7.10pm)

June 3: vs Great Britain (5.10pm)

June 7: vs Netherlands (11.10pm)

June 8: vs Argentina (8.40pm)

June 10: vs Netherlands (9.10pm)

June 11: vs Argentina (11.10pm)

All times IST, Live on Star Sports Network and Fancode

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