Hockey World Cup Fantasy XI: what would a team of India's best-ever players look like?

(L-R): PR Sreejesh, Dhanraj Pillay, Dilip Tirkey ESPN/Getty Images

With the men's Hockey World Cup 2023 around the corner, we are attempting a tough task: making an all-time Indian men's XI that would be a surefire shot at glory.

The one major qualifier we used was that we would only select players who represented India in and after the inaugural World Cup in 1971. This excludes some very obvious names from India's Olympic glory years, but there are some great throwback names in there.

From the current batch of players, only three make the final XI.

Goalkeeper: Who else but Sreejesh?

There is no doubt that there have been quality goalkeepers for the Indian men's side in the past half a century, but rarely has one lifted the performance of the team steadily through his contribution quite as much as PR Sreejesh has done.

In the end, the Tokyo 2020 bronze was as much about due reward for a decade's worth of salvation acts carried out by him as anything else that had gone right in recent years for Indian hockey.

The defence: Two legends and an unfulfilled prodigy

India often went (and still do go in) with just the two deep defenders, but I have selected three, for their very specific and varied roles that they bring in to both their primary functionality, as well as how they contributed to goal-scoring.

Dilip Tirkey and Pargat Singh were fairly simple choices. The longevity of their international careers -- Tirkey is the first Indian man to 400 caps, while Pargat is the only Indian man to have led the team at two Olympic Games -- and early elevation to leadership for both, speaks of their consistency as players.

Both were also prolific scorers, Tirkey with the more traditional hit or slap from penalty corners (PCs), while Pargat was more of a field-goal specialist. He was perhaps one of India's most attack-minded full-backs, and having him here just adds a different dimension to attack.

Speaking of which, there needs to be a drag-flick monster in the mix. We pick Jugraj Singh, one of the stars of the Junior Hockey World Cup win in Hobart in 2001, who then played the Kuala Lumpur World Cup the following year, but suffered a career-ending road accident in 2003. He was peerless with his drag-flick -- impressing Pakistan legend Sohail Abbas so much that he appointed Jugraj his spiritual successor. He has mentored some of the best Indian flickers since, and it is only fitting that their guru gets placed ahead of them in a list of this nature. Oh, and Jugraj was also an incredible first-rusher.

The midfield: Creativity across

With the midfield, there was a temptation to settle for just two, but we have gone with a trio that gives a bit of stability, and yet keeps the attacking tempo going with the team.

Ashok Kumar played mostly in attack, but he plays right wing here with Zafar Iqbal bombing down the left. Both legends offer free-scoring options -- Ashok got the goal that won India their only World Cup - and also speed, skill and the game sense to be able to control the tempo of the game.

In the middle of that triangle, we have Manpreet Singh. Among central midfielders, or half-backs as we usually term them, only Sardar Singh can be considered a potential replacement (Ajit Pal Singh also made this position his own, but it would be unfair to compare the pace of the game in the 1970s with modern hockey), but Manpreet just works harder than anybody. He is fast, wins most challenges in the middle, and is another excellent first rusher. In this team, he is the glue that binds the historic and the modern.'

The attack: The four forwards of the apocalypse

What else would you term them, when opposition teams have to cope with (left to right, or right to left) Mohammad Shahid, BP Govinda, Mandeep Singh and Dhanraj Pillay?

Shahid was perhaps the greatest dribbler of independent Indian hockey, and that makes him an important asset to weave his way in from either wing. He and Govida often played alongside Ashok, and their interchangeability would give opposition defences nightmares. Both had incredible speed and control, which would make them handy wingers in this tactical setup.

For finishing, there are no two better players than Dhanraj and Mandeep. Yet again, a delightful convergence of the classical dribbling style of Dhanraj, and the sheer opportunism of Mandeep. With his fellow-forwards weaving through defences, Mandeep could stay low near either post, waiting to tip in anything that might fall loose.

The seven reserves would be Ashish Ballal, Jude Felix, Rupinder Pal Singh, Ajit Pal Singh, Sardar Singh, Mervyn Fernandes and Gagan Ajit Singh.