Olympic spots open as India look to find best XI at Pro League

Harmanpreet Singh will be India's vice-captain in the Pro League. Hockey India

When India's hockey coach Graham Reid returned to the national camp on December 28 following a two-week break, he was a little worried about what he would be greeted with.

"The number one concern not just in India, is what the fitness level of the players is going to be once you return," Reid explained. His fears were allayed though.

"I was concerned that we shouldn't let our fitness level slack. We set the players targets and then had a fitness test once the team got back together. There wasn't any one who was unfit. Probably 90 percent of the players recorded their personal bests in the tests." That result was just what Reid was hoping to see. "It showed just how motivated the players were going into the Olympic year."

The new season begins this weekend with the first couple of Pro League matches between India and Netherlands in Bhubaneswar. India will also host Belgium (February 8-9) and Australia (February 21-22).

Reid reckons that's as good a preparation the side will get heading into the Olympics in Tokyo.

"Normally in an Olympic year, it's pretty standard to try and figure out, who you should be playing and who you don't. With the Pro League, that's out of the window. It's good that we will be playing some good games against some pretty strong competition."

Each of India's prospective opponents come with their own challenges.

"The three teams pose a daunting yet exciting challenge to us," Reid said. "The Netherlands have really high skills and they press you really close. Because Belgium have been playing together for so long, their connections are fantastic. They know almost instinctively where their players are. Australia come at you really quickly and they can finish matches really fast if you are even a little careless."

That said, Reid feels that with so little time to go before the Olympics, it's likely that teams aren't going to reveal all their tricks just yet. While India play in a separate group from Belgium and Netherlands, it's more than likely that they could meet in the elimination phase later in the tournament.

"Everyone is going to be holding something back. You don't want to show everything just yet. Even with us, its going to be about just getting our playing structures right. It's going to be a matter of practising with the ball and running without it. We are going to see how we come out of our defence and doing it against different styles of play."

While Reid admits that teams like India might well be limiting themselves over the next few weeks in Bhubaneswar, there is still plenty to play for.

"As a coach, you always tell your players that each game is different, but in reality there's always stuff you take from every game. There are these little things that players remember from having played before. It's not just confidence but also about specific plays that could make a difference later on."

What's more, the players also know that a strong show from them here only boosts their chances to make the final Olympic squad. With players like Chinglensena Singh returning to the national squad after nearly a year off, Reid says there are always spots open.

"All of them know they have a chance to play at Olympics. But what's heartening is that the harder each of them work, they also lift the players around them. We can't just be happy with this. Each of the players knows they have the chance to play in the Olympics. They can't hold anything back until then."

India squad: PR Sreejesh, Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Harmanpreet Singh, Gurinder Singh, Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar, Birendra Lakra, Rupinder Pal Singh, Manpreet Singh (captain), Vivek Sagar Prasad, Chinglensana Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, Sumit, Gurjant Singh, SV Sunil, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Gursahibjit Singh, Kothajit Singh Khadangbam