The Indian men's hockey team is currently playing in an Olympic Test Event in Tokyo to prepare for the upcoming Olympic qualifiers later in the year. For this event, the captaincy of the side has been entrusted to Harmanpreet Singh, the young defender and penalty corner expert.
The 23-year old is unfazed by the challenge and looks forward to the experience. With the Olympics less than a year away, a lot depends on how he boosts the Indian team's defence. In an exclusive interview with Akshay Saraswat of International Business Times, India, the boy from Amritsar discusses everything from his inspiration to the goals he has set for the team.
You have been made the captain of the Indian team for the upcoming tournament in Japan. Since you are still quite young, how challenging would it be to lead the side?
Harmanpreet: Yes, it's a big challenge for me as I have got this opportunity for the first time. I am fully ready to take the entire team along and to work hard together.
Usually, captains tend to be midfielders but you are a defender. How hard would it be to guide the team from the back?
Harmanpreet: Well, in our team's defensive structure, we consider our forward line as the first line of defence. Then, midfielders and defenders come in. So, for us, it is actually an advantage that we can guide the team, be it the midfielders or the forwards, from the back.
The responsibility that we have upon us is big. But the players that we have with us are really good and have a lot of experience also. So, we help each other out and it's not that difficult for us.
In the FIH Series Finals, one slight weakness of the Indian team that one observed was a bit of vulnerability against counter-attacks. Is that something your team is working upon?
Harmanpreet: Yes, definitely. There has been a lot of work on positioning. How should we position ourselves, including when we are one person down or have one player extra? All these things have been worked upon. For defence especially, we even had a special camp. That was really good and we improved ourselves through it, especially all the defenders here. So, I think we would do better this time.
So, would you like your attackers to be quick in retreating if there is a counter-attack?
Harmanpreet: Absolutely. They are fast but sometimes the counter-attack happens so quickly that there is no time to recover for players who were moving forward. But that's what we are focussing on. If there is an attack from the right side, we want our left flank to provide cover. As I said, we have done a lot of work on positioning.
How much does the presence of senior defenders in the team like Rupinder Pal Singh help you guys?
Harmanpreet: A great deal. As a youngster, when I started out and made my debut, it was while Rupinder Pal Singh and VR Raghunath were playing in the team. So, the experience that I have gained from them, I use it to guide the new players, be they defenders, midfielders or forwards, in the same way. We get a lot of help from seniors because they boost the confidence of other players and cheer them up. All these things I have learnt from them and it's through such lessons that I have moved forward in my career.
So, in the absence of Rupinder Pal Singh, did you guys feel a lack of experience in the defence?
Harmanpreet: When it comes to experience, I would say that everyone is similar. I also believe we played really well. The whole team has put in a lot of effort. All players who get selected are similar and do a lot of hard work. So, I won't say there is too much difference.
You are also the penalty-corner specialist in the team. Chris Ciriello, a great drag-flicker in his time, is now with your side as the analytical coach. Are you learning some of those tricks from him which you noticed as an opponent?
Harmanpreet: Yes, there are little things. We have an extra session for drag flickers and he guides us as a defender also. He shares his experience. Also, how to handle the pressure in important games, all these things he helps us with.
Mostly, I would say we have worked a lot on penalty corners. He also assists us through video analysis and works a great deal on small but important things like finishing.
With drag-flickers, there are those like Gonzalo Peillat of Argentina who are all about power and then there are those who focus more on placement. What do you consider most important?
Harmanpreet: Both. What I am focussing on currently and what the team is being asked to focus on, as per the guidance of Chris Ciriello, is how to beat the first runner. This matters a lot.
Also, usually, goalkeepers stay on the right post, so the left runner has a lot depending on him. Our big focus is on: how to beat him? So, we have practiced a lot on that. The way we set up a penalty corner, both in attack and defence has seen a lot of improvement.
Coach Graham Reid had told us that defence is the area you guys are focussing on. The attacking prowess of your team is anyway great. So, is defence the aspect of your team's game where most of the work is being done?
Harmanpreet: Indeed. As I told you earlier, we have already had a camp for this. And it wasn't as if it was only for the defenders. Our midfield and forward line also participated in it as they are the first line of defence. The pressure from the other team is first faced by the forward line, then the midfielders and defenders. So, the focus is on everyone. Re-tackling, defending, all these things are being worked on.
You also worked under Jugraj Singh who was the original drag-flicker in Indian hockey. Was he your role model and have you learned anything from him?
Harmanpreet: Yes, indeed, I follow him a lot and he has helped me a great deal. Whenever I go home, I meet him. When he was with our team, then also he helped us a lot. He worked a lot on my strength and also on my technique. All the drag-flickers that were there got a lot of help from him.
In the upcoming tournament, are you going to focus on drag-flicks mainly or also on variations since they are in vogue these days?
Harmanpreet: I would say both. Because in our practice, we have worked on both. Three to four variations have been tried. We have worked on direct hits as well. So, both would be used.
What is the goal that you have in mind going into this tournament?
Harmanpreet: Of course, it is to win. That is our mind-set going into every tournament. That is why we are doing so much hard work, spending so much time on the ground and on meetings. So, of course, our mind-set is to win.
Personally, among the best drag flickers in the world, like Peillat, Blake Govers, Mink van der Weerden, etc., whom do you consider your biggest rival?
Harmanpreet: All of them are good. You can't mention just one. It also depends on the match. The more opportunities you get, the more you would score.
Are you also working on increasing your physical strength to make your drag flick even more powerful?
Harmanpreet: Yes. Our trainer gets a lot of hard work done in the gym. Here also, on the field, we have core exercises. For drag flicks, there are special exercises and drills that are being used and they have been very helpful.