FIH Pro League Hockey: Real test will be the Asiad final: Zafar Iqbal

Story by  Nakul Shivani | Posted by  Aasha Khosa • 11 d ago
India are on top of the points table in the FIH Pro League
India are on top of the points table in the FIH Pro League


Nakul Shivani/ New Delhi

India’s performance in the just concluded FIH Pro League Hockey tournament has brought the smiles back on the faces of Indian fans after the disappointment of a ninth-place finish in the world cup in January this year.

After painted faces of young fans were smeared with tears following the host country’s crushing loss to New Zealand 4-5 in a penalty shoot-out in the cross-over stage, the fans who thronged the Rourkela stadium this week went home delirious.

“This augurs well for Indian hockey,” says Zafar Iqbal, former international and member of the gold medal winning Moscow Olympics team.

India defeated world champions Germany and Australia twice to keep a clean-slate in the three-country Pro League matches to go on top of the points table.

Harmanpreet and Jugraj celebrate a goal against world champions Germany

In the first match on March 11, India stunned Germany 3-2. As if to prove this was no fluke, they thrashed the world champions 6-3 in the second match. But this is not where the story of Indian hockey’s bounce back ends this week. The Harmanpreet Singh led side also brushed aside Australia in both the matches.

“The performance by the young side is heartening. After tall this is a crucial year since we have the Asian Games and winning the final is what we must. That will ensure our direct qualification for the Paris Olympics or else we will have to go through the rigours of a qualification tournament,” says Zafar Iqbal.

Former India International Zafar Iqbal

After the world cup debacle, Hockey India has churned the Indian Hockey playing set-up. Coach Graham Reid resigned, as did his team of support staff. Some players were either rested or sacked from the team. In came David John and B J Kariappa as the interim coaches to fill in the space till South African Craig Fulton takes over the reins of the team in a few weeks time.

Zafar says,“From the first look, this looks like a side that can provide a great nucleus for the immediate future. There are some promising players in the ranks who are making full use of the opportunity given to them. The selectors will find it difficult to ignore them and those players who missed out playing in the Pro League will have to work double hard to earn their places back.”

Some outstanding performances in Rourkela this week were by the forwards and the midfielders. Zafar identifies Sukhjeet and the breakout talent from Tamil Nadu Karthi Selvam as the two starts of the future. “Sukhjeet and Karthi were brilliant. Other forwards who have been regulars in the Indian team so far will find it difficult to retain their places in the team,” says Zafar.

Sukhjeet Singh was one of the outstanding performers for India in the FIH Pro League this week

Also, heartening was to see captain Harmanpreet Singh get back his mojo in converting penalty corners. This was an area that let India down in the world cup. “There was something wrong with the execution of the short corners. One could see the lack of cohesion between the pusher, stopper and the drag flicker. Maybe just a second’s delay was ruining our chances,” Zafar opines.

“We need to find a solid shadow to Harmanpreet. Jugraj has been brought in for the FIH Pro League. He is good but a little raw. Maybe, with time he will mature,” adds Zafar.

With the FIH Pro League now done for the time being, the big picture awaits India in a couple of months. “The Asiad final is the big one. There is Malaysia and Pakistan. But the real threat is from South Korea. They are making a strong comeback to international hockey. They were good in the world cup and will be our real challenger in the Asian Games, which we must win to ensure our direct flight to Paris in 2024,” says Zafar Iqbal.

Harmanpreet Singh was in sublime form scoring goals through penalty corners

“Our players have to be tested in big tournaments. FIH Pro League is fine. Its just an experimental process for all teams, including ours. The real exam for these young guns will happen when they are put in the cauldron of big tournaments – the Olympics, Asian games, world cup. They must pass that test will flying colours, then only can we say we have forgotten the heartbreak of the World Cup,” he adds.

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“But I am happy with what I saw this week in Rourkela. I do see light at the end of the tunnel,” says the former Indian international before adding a caveat, “the real test will be the Asiad final later this year.”