No draws, high-quality field: Reasons to look forward to the Pro League

Midfielder Chinglensana Singh returns to the team after a year out due to injury. Hockey India

The FIH Pro League (men's) gets underway in Bhubaneswar with a double-header featuring India (World No. 5) and Netherlands (World No. 3) on January 18 and 19.

Besides being an annual competition that pits the best teams against each other in home and away matches, the 2020 edition will assume greater significance as it fields nine teams in an Olympic year, and opens up opportunities for teams to try out various combinations before firming up their squads for Tokyo.

Here are four reasons why you must follow India's fortunes at the Pro League:

The competition is the best

After Netherlands, India will host Belgium and Australia in February. They then travel across to Germany and Great Britain, before returning to Bhubaneswar to host New Zealand. They will finish off with two-match ties against Argentina and Spain away.

Australia, Belgium and Netherlands finished in this order during the inaugural Pro League last year, both after the league stages and following the knockouts, while Argentina are the defending Olympic champions.

With India being grouped alongside Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Spain in Tokyo, there cannot be better preparation for the biggest prize on offer in the sport.

The format makes for exciting games

An interesting twist to the conventional rules of the sport in the Pro League is that there are no drawn matches.

If scores are level at the end of the 60 minutes, the game goes to a shootout. In such cases, the winner picks up two points, the defeated team getting one for the draw.

This encourages attacking gameplay, and should make for some fast, entertaining hockey all the way through the tournament.

Tokyo seats up for grabs

India welcome back midfielder Chinglensana Singh into the squad for this event, with a star-studded line-up as support cast. Gursahibjit Singh and reverse-hit expert Gurjant Singh will get a chance to vie for starting slots in attack alongside the experienced SV Sunil and Mandeep Singh.

There will be heavy rotation, with coach Graham Reid having mentioned during the Olympic qualifiers last November that he would like a core group of about 35 players who get regular opportunities before Tokyo.

For players who have had limited opportunities in recent matches, every minute on the pitch during the Pro League will count.

Netherlands have brought their best

Netherlands used the last Pro League to blood some of their younger players, but for the Bhubaneswar leg, they have brought pretty much their best squad.

Pirmin Blaak will man the goal for them, defender Mink van der Weerden will be on hand to pump in penalty corners, while one would expect the Indian goal to be under constant threat from the likes of Jeroen Hertzberger, Mirco Pruijser, Valentin Verga, and Seve van Ass.

India and Netherlands have had some close contests in recent times, but haven't faced off in an FIH event since the World Cup quarterfinal in 2018 at the same venue, where India took an early lead but conceded a late winner to go down 2-1. That match itself came not long after a Champions Trophy pool match in Breda, Netherlands, where India held the hosts to a 1-1 draw with a superb defensive display, qualifying for a final with Australia at the hosts' expense.

TV listings

India v Netherlands, January 18, 7 pm IST onwards, Star Sports 1/Star Sports 1 HD

India v Netherlands, January 19, 5 pm IST onwards, Star Sports 2/Star Sports 2 HD