India began their 2022 season with a bang, registering 15 goals and only conceding twice in two games of the FIH Pro League, blanking France 5-0 and South Africa 10-2. It is still early in the year and while neither France (who have just come off an indoor season) nor South Africa (who are missing several key players due to work commitments) are the most dominant sides in world hockey, these two games have hinted at what to expect from India ahead of a busy calendar.
Pace on the counter
In the first match of the Pro League, France went from taking a penalty corner hoping to reduce the deficit to a single goal; to staring at a 0-3 scorecard in about 15 seconds. After Victor Charlet's strike was cleared, Nilakanta Singh made a sharp long pass to Shamsher Singh, who finished it off without fuss. This pace on the counter was perhaps the most heartening facet of the Indian display over the two games. Both France and South Africa were often tentative in their own attacks, as they feared the speed at which India would counter.
Pace needs accuracy to be effective though - despite it being India's first couple of matches of the season, there was no rustiness. While Nilakanta and Manpreet Singh have been efficient enough in the midfield, 23-year-old Hardik Singh stood out over the course of both games.
High balls add a new dimension
With India already 7-0 up, South Africa packed their midfield trying to get some control back in the match. Consequently, there was little space on offer on the ground, and thus Harmanpreet Singh - primarily a drag flicking defender - scooped the ball over the South Africans right into their 'D' to a waiting Mandeep Singh. An exchange with Abhishek later, Mandeep made it 8-0.
In neither match were the South Africans or French teams able to commit numbers to any attack. A major reason being the Indian defence being able to find forwards with regularity, turning any pressure over almost instantly. They weren't just doing this through sharp straight passes which opponents could read, using high balls as well. While India have used the aerial ball before, that tactic was repeatedly used against both South Africa and France. The high ball adds a new dimension to the Indian attack and is likely to be something they will use more in matches to come.
India went into the FIH Pro League with a couple of players making their senior debut. Jugraj Singh and Abhishek had a great start to their international careers, as both scored goals, with the former netting a hat-trick against France. With the retirement of Rupinder Pal Singh, India needed a reliable drag flicker to share responsibilities alongside Harmanpreet Singh. For now, that need appears to be covered with Jugraj adding his name alongside that of Varun Kumar.
What remains to be seen though, is whether Jugraj can handle defensive duties as well. India were never under sustained pressure in either of their games but that will be tested against stronger sides. Should Jugraj prove to be capable, there will be additional pressure on Amit Rohidas. While the 28-year-old has been a mainstay in the team over the last Olympic cycle, he didn't have a great couple of games. However, as first runner, he is still a key component to India's penalty corner (PC) defence. Coincidentally, the short corner scored by South Africa came when he was off the field.
Stepping off the gas
In both matches as they piled on the goals, India were guilty of losing intensity in the second half of the match. In their match against South Africa, India were leading 8-0 in the first half but as they sat back it was the South Africans who managed to 'win' the third quarter by a 2-1 scoreline. Indian coach Graham Reid could be overheard berating his side in the break before the fourth quarter, telling them to stay switched on.
While it's perhaps difficult to keep their foot on the gas once it's clear the match was decided, India's mistake was in continuing to play their high-pace game without the same focus, which resulted in turnovers. Perhaps a smarter solution in a similar scenario would be to kill the speed of the game by retaining the ball, which wouldn't require the same intensity.