Sunday's 3-2 defeat to Belgium may have taken just a bit of shine off it but it's hard to argue that India's performance in the Pro League this season hasn't been anything but impressive.
Following an impressive double over the Netherlands', they beat world and European champions Belgium 2-1 on Saturday and could well have stayed unbeaten but for a bizarre back pass from Harmanpreet Singh that came after India had clawed back twice to level the match. As things stand, India are second in the points table, just behind Belgium, who are considered the gold standard in men's hockey at the moment.
Here are the things that have stood out about India's impressive start and the the things they would need to improve on.
What sets this team apart, says former coach Harendra Singh is their attacking approach. "This is what the Indian approach to hockey is supposed to be. That should be the standard operating procedure. We have to press opponents in their own half. We started playing this way in the Asian Champions trophy (In 2019) and before that I tried it with the juniors at the junior world cup, but the senior team is doing this really well now," he says.
Former captain Viren Rasquinha agrees with that assessment. "Perhaps in the past we were too respectful of the best teams in the world. When India played against Netherlands or Germany the approach would be to sit back and try to score on the counter. That meant there was always a lot of pressure on us. But now you are seeing India putting the pressure through high pressing. Teams like Belgium and Netherlands don't like to be pressed because they aren't used to something like that," he says. "We are intercepting almost every third pass because of the way we are pressurising opponents. And you can see that reflected in the possession statistics (a relatively even 48-52 in favour of Belgium in the previous encounter)," says Harendra.
Playing a high press is of course easier said than done. "It's one thing for a coach to say you need to be more attacking. It's another thing for the players to have the confidence or ability to do it," says former captain Jagbir Singh. The consensus is that a critical factor behind India's ability to fight on the opponent's turf is their much improved physical fitness.
"The key to being able to press is the fitness of the team. If the team is fit, you can experiment with how you want to play. I've always felt that the day the Indian team can get fit, we can roll on anyone in the world. Even if you lose the ball while pressing high, you still have the energy to fight and recover it quickly. The science is that players tend to make mistakes when they are fatigued. Now we are able to maintain the same intensity throughout the game," says Harendra. "There are no sudden drop-offs in the consistency of the team. It's not that you start out with a lot of josh (energy) and that goes down as the match progresses. The team is playing at the same level over the entire match," says Jugraj Singh.
Former captain Rasquinha believes that this ability to play consistently and not in patches is why the team has been able to recover after trailing in their matches against Netherlands and Belgium. In India's second match against Netherlands, the home side scored two goals in the final quarter to level the match and came back twice in the second game against Belgium before eventually going down. "With big teams if you concede one goal, it's easy to go down by multiple goals very fast. In the past Indian teams had a habit of putting their heads down, which wasn't a good sign. That's not happening in the recent matches," says Rasquinha.
What's also stood out for Rasquinha is the way India have started strongly in all their matches -- India scored inside 30 seconds in their first game against Netherlands and within 90 seconds in their first match against Belgium. "India are usually really slow starters. But in the Pro League, they have been starting their matches at a very high pace. It's a very Australian mentality to start matches on such a high throttle," says Rasquinha.
What is particularly impressive about the current Indian side is that they have managed to beat two top teams even while switching out multiple players -- seven players were changed for the match against Belgium. Reserve keeper Krishna Pathak has routinely alternated quarters with PR Sreejesh. And while Sreejesh's return to form was one of the reasons for India's showing, Pathak hasn't done badly for himself, even winning a player of the match award for his effort in the 2-1 win against Belgium.
"Everyone is being involved," says Jugraj Singh. "Even the players who are not in the side are expected to study the matches from the bench," he says. The fact that coach Graham Reid is using the Pro League as a testing ground, has come in for praise from erstwhile coach Harendra Singh. "You can't go into the Olympics banking on just 11 players. It's very important what Reid has done, giving playing time to nearly all the 30 players in the camp. It's going to be very challenging to pick a squad for the Olympics but that's the kind of headache you need," he says.
While they laud the Indian performances, experts also sound a note of caution. "What remains to be seen, is how India deal with the pressure of a big match. We are playing big teams but the pressure of playing a high stakes tournament isn't there. On Sunday we lost to Belgium but it doesn't mean anything because it's not a knockout encounter. The nature of the Pro League is that you have two tough matches and then you have a couple of weeks of rest. In that time you can work on your fitness, and look to improve your mistakes. In a tournament like the Olympics, you are playing maybe seven hard matches in less than two weeks," says Rasquinha.
The intensity and pace at which India is playing comes with its own trade-offs. "We did well against them, but Belgium's buildup from the baseline is better. The accuracy of their passing was also superior to us. There were a few mistakes from us especially because we were trying to pass as quickly as possible. We are clearly getting to where we need to be but we need to be a little more patient with our ball possession," says Jagbir.