Back in rhythm, Harmanpreet eyes goals again
The Indian skipper had a poor World Cup in January and it took him some time to find his bearings again
A moist-eyed, disheartened Harmanpreet Singh sat in front of the press after India’s unanticipated loss from a winning position to New Zealand in the World Cup crossovers.
As expected, a barrage of fiery questions was fired at the India skipper, who had also failed to get going as a drag-flicker in the tournament that took place in January. “I know everyone is talking about me not scoring enough. I also wanted to. I tried, but it didn’t happen,” the 27-year-old had said then.
Hopes, from both India and its captain, were high given the backdrop of the Olympic bronze and playing the World Cup at home. But they were dashed on both fronts. India finished joint ninth – the worst-ever finish by a host team at the quadrennial showpiece. When it came to penalty corners (PC), India made only five of the 27 count with a conversion rate of 18.51% with Harmanpreet scoring only once in four games.
To find his rhythm again, the India skipper went back to the drawing board.
“Mentally for me, I was giving my 100 percent on the field, I was tackling and passing well but the drag-flick didn’t work. Seeing that of course you are disappointed. I had to come back from that. I saw the World Cup matches. I practiced and focused on my mistakes to come back from that (low),” says Harmanpreet.
"We have done well in the past but as players we never sit in a comfort zone thinking we have achieved this or that and there is nothing else to do. You have to keep improving day-by-day for the next target. We spend so much time in the camp away from our families because we have a reason; we want to achieve more and better. There is no comfort zone for players.”
Former head coach of Belgium Shane McLeod, who guided the European team to the 2018 World Cup crown and the Tokyo Olympics gold in 2021, said all drag-flickers go through such phases.
“A lot of it is about timing and so on and anything can change that. If you do too many drag-flicks or you don’t do enough, all of that can affect your timing. With the top ones you’ll notice that they usually pick up (hit) the ball the hardest because you've adrenaline but you also have that timing. I think his rhythm was a little bit off. (Belgium drag-flicker) Alex (Alexander Hendrickx) has gone through that from time-to-time," said McLeod, who was assisting Belgium as a consultant during the 2023 World Cup.
A two-time FIH Coach of the Year winner, McLeod has followed Harmanpreet’s career from his junior days considering the Indian has traditionally done well against Belgum. He kept an eye for the FIH Player of the Year because had India beaten New Zealand, they would have faced defending champions Belgium in the quarter-finals.
“I think it was his rhythm and timing which also has a bit of an impact on your confidence. When you start thinking too much about what you're doing, it becomes sort of a downward spiral. These flickers when they are going to flick are not thinking about a great deal. They are just concentrating on where they want it to go. The less thinking the better.”
After a month’s hard work in the national camp, the defender returned in terrific fashion in the Pro League mini-tournament in March. Harmanpreet guided his team to victories in all four games – two each against world champions Germany and Olympic silver medallists Australia, contributing both with goals and assists.
“It was confidence. He probably had more training he felt comfortable with and so on. You go through phases. The guys play a lot of hockey after which there is a bit of decompression. It takes them a little while to process that and then get back. I think he went through that process,” added McLeod, who spoke from Hamburg where he now coaches German club Hamburger Polo Club.
Harmanpreet scored five goals in four matches, including a hat-trick against Australia which resulted in India currently topping the standings of the elite nine-team tournament. Harmanpreet is also the leading goal-scorer of the year-long league with 11 goals after ending last season as the top scorer with 18 goals.
“After the World Cup it was important for me as a drag-flicker (to get back my form) because we get a lot of opportunities. You convert some, you don’t convert some. The Pro League (in March) was special for me because personally I needed it to get my form back and score well. Our matches went well. I even played a match the entire 60 minutes for the first time in my life and scored too. It was important for building confidence, not just for me but also the team,” said Harmanpreet.
"Even though we practice (drag-flicks) throughout the year but somehow there comes a time when you're just not able to do it. But my team played a big role in helping and supporting me. We don’t blame anyone. There’s no such culture in the team. Nobody made me feel that I am not being able to do my job. Significantly, the team atmosphere was always good where everyone supported each other.”
Harmanpreet and India’s new test will be the European swing of the Pro League which will decide whether India wins the tournament or not. These eight games in London and Eindhoven are also new coach Craig Fulton’s first assignment. The South African, who joined the setup at the end of April, has a slightly different approach to his predecessor Graham Reid. Whilst the Australian focused on an all-out attack, Fulton has a “defend to win” philosophy.
“The structure is mainly the same but the coach has been saying that defensively we will need to be strong. We will get opportunities in attack but in defence, we have to be strong. That is the focus mainly,” said the skipper, who is going to become a father soon.