The Indian men's hockey team begins life under new coach Graham Reid with a tour of Australia that starts on May 8 in Perth against the Western Australia Thundersticks. India then play two matches against Australia 'A' on May 10 and 13, before meeting the senior team on May 15 and May 17.
Thus far, 2019 has been a relatively lean year, and with the Series Finals in June to follow, finishing in the top-two there would assure India of a place in the Olympic qualifiers between October 25 and November 3, later in the year.
Here's why the Australian tour will be a critical tune-up.
New coach, and finally some game time
The Azlan Shah Cup in the last week of March has been the only significant outing for the Indian team, even as the first edition of International Hockey Federation's (FIH) new flagship event, the Pro League took off without them. While India will be part of the Pro League 2020 onwards but the absence of the top teams meant the Azlan Shah Cup saw India unbeaten in the pool stages against South Korea, Canada, Poland, Japan and hosts Malaysia. India lost the final on shootout to the Koreans, but the lack of quality opposition since their quarterfinals-finish at the World Cup last December means the five matches in Australia should give them some good exposure ahead of the FIH Series Finals.
Reid, formally appointed on April 8, has only had three weeks with the side, and has recalled penalty-corner specialist Rupinder Pal Singh for the first time since the Asian Games. Jaskaran Singh, a 25-year-old midfielder, is expected to make his India debut during the tour, while Armaan Qureshi, member of the Junior World Cup team in 2016, will lead the forward line alongside the experienced Mandeep Singh and Gursahibjit Singh. Gursahibjit made his debut at the Azlan Shah Cup, but wasn't among India's scorers as they found the board 25 times in six matches. Expect all of these names to make a push for inclusion to the Series Finals squad with their performances.
What to expect from Reid as coach?
Reid, who was head coach of Australia as recently as during the Rio Olympics in 2016, is likely to lay emphasis on speedy, attacking hockey from the Indian team.
"The new coach constantly reminds us why a team player holds more value to him than an individual player with excellent skill set," captain and midfielder Manpreet Singh told PTI as the Indian team left for Australia. "He also instills winning mentality in every player and confident body language has also been an area of focus apart from game-specific tactics."
Where would India's focus be during this tour?
The 18-member squad that travels to Australia has an experienced back line, with PR Sreejesh in goal joined by the likes of Rupinder, Harmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra and Kothajit Singh.
It's the midfield and attack, where Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Nilakanta Sharma and Sumit Kumar Junior will all be looking to make an impact. "This tour will provide me with a great chance to get to know this group of players. It comprises a well-balanced mix, including some younger players, a debutant [Jaskaran] and a player coming back from long-term injury [Rupinder]. To be able to play four matches against world-class opposition will be a great opportunity to test our players under pressure," Reid had said when announcing his squad.