FIH Pro League: Usual suspects Hardik, Harmanpreet, Sreejesh impress as India start Olympics prep positively

Hockey India

In the crucial year of Paris Olympics, India started this season's FIH Pro League at home on a strong note. They beat Spain 4-1 on Saturday and then played a solid game against the Dutch on Sunday.

In both the matches, coach Craig Fulton's style was evident with the focus on maintaining the defensive structure and cutting through the opponents in counter attacks. But it's India's ever reliable senior players who impressed the most against Spain and the Netherlands.

Harmanpreet's Kalinga connection

There's a sense of inevitability when Harmanpreet Singh gears to unleash his dragflick at the Kalinga Stadium. It has been happening for years. When you look at the India captain as he prepares for his shot, you can see his determination but more importantly his confidence. He just knows that he will beat first rushers and then the goalkeeper.

Last season in the Pro League, Harmanpreet scored six goals at the Kalinga in four matches. A year before, he netted eight penalty corner goals in eight Pro League matches at the same venue.

Against the Netherlands on Sunday, the inevitability was seen again. With two minutes to go, India were trailing 1-2 and won a penalty corner. Harmanpreet, playing his 200th international match, stepped up, his determination and confidence was palpable as he fired in the equaliser; his third goal in two matches. India eventually earned a bonus point after winning the shootout.

The man is one of the world's best, and to a few the best dragflicker in the world, and his level goes up a notch when he's playing at the Kalinga.

Which is why his performance at last year's World Cup was beyond bizarre, where he could convert just one penalty corner chance as India failed to make it to the quarterfinals.

Hardik, Sreejesh maintain their high standards

While Harmanpreet remains as the team's most important player because of his goals, vice-captain Hardik Singh is the fulcrum around which the team plays their hockey. In the last two years, Hardik has risen to a level where he's the team's playmaker, presser-in-chief and contributes with the goals. He's at a level where once Manpreet Singh and Sardar Singh used to be.

At times against Spain and Netherlands, Hardik was the last man in India's defensive line, initiating attack either with his passes or by running through the midfield.

"You can say this is a responsibility, which I am happy to fulfil for the team. I am playing with confidence and I'm playing to the team's needs," Hardik told ESPN when asked about his role.

Like Harmanpreet, Hardik had a difficult time at the World Cup, getting injured midway into the tournament and witnessing India's exit from the sidelines. But a year from now, both are back to being their best against the best teams in the world.

Besides Hardik and Harmanpreet, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh was another standout on the pitch. Be it his shootout brilliance or set piece defending, Sreejesh has maintained his standards for over a decade and a half.

Against Spain, Sreejesh produced a couple of fine saves from penalty corners to keep India's lead intact. The next day against the Dutch, his saves were more influential as he helped India draw the match and clinch a bonus point in the shootout.

The clutch quotient in his game was seen once again in the dying seconds of the match against the Dutch. With the score being 2-2, Koen Bijen had a golden chance to win the match for his team, but Sreejesh stood tall to spoil the chance and then covered his angle to ensure the Dutch don't find the net on the rebound.

Later in the shootout, his imposing presence and brilliant saves ensured India take home the bonus point. Even after playing 300 international matches, he's still on point with his reflexes and reaction time.

Next up for India is a big challenge against nemesis team Australia on the 15th and then Ireland on the 16th. With a start like this, Harmanpreet and Co will look to build on the momentum even further.