Four months after their first Olympic medal in 41 years, the Indian men's hockey team return to the field in the Asian Champions Trophy next month. Yet, less than half the side that made history will be on the field in Dhaka.
Why? Well, with an eye on the Paris Olympics, the squad looking to win the continental gold is one largely made up of youngsters who ought to be in their prime come 2024.
A new look squad
Of the 18 players who represented India at the Tokyo Olympics, just 8 have found a place in the squad for the Asian Champions Trophy.
While Rupinder Pal Singh and Birendra Lakra had announced their retirements in the weeks following the Olympics, defenders Surender Kumar, Amit Rohidas, midfielder Nilakanta and forwards Gurjant Singh, Simranjit Singh and Mandeep Singh will not be part of the squad for Dhaka. Interestingly, all of the players who have been excluded are 26 years old or older, making them nearly 30 at the time of the Paris Games.
Midfielder Vivek Prasad, 20, has also not been named in the squad, although that's probably because he is presently competing at the Junior World Cup, which ends a week before the Champions Trophy. "While selecting this team we have our eyes on the future. It takes a deep and strong squad to build sustained success so players have to be given opportunities to perform," Graham Reid, coach of the Indian men's team told Hockey India.
Drag flick duties
Rupinder Pal Singh's retirement meant that India lost one of the world's most effective drag flick experts and their leading goal scorer (119 goals in 245 matches). However, at the time of his retirement, Rupinder Pal was perhaps no longer India's leading drag flick expert. Even though he scored four goals in Tokyo, Harmanpreet Singh had scored 6 over the course of the tournament. Yet, his experience was critical - he scored the decisive goal in the bronze medal match. His absence will mean that while Harmanpreet will shoulder the bulk of drag flick duties, the team's other short corner specialist, Varun Kumar, will have to step up in tournaments going forward.
Sreejesh misses out
Perhaps the biggest name missing from the squad is that of goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. He was crucial in India's bronze medal run at the Olympics, earning him the men's Goalkeeper of the Year award by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) as well as the Khel Ratna. However at 33-years-old, Sreejesh is clearly closer to the end of his career than the start. Consequently, India would prefer to give Krishan Pathak and Suraj Karkera, aged 24 and 26 years old respectively, as much playing time as possible.
While Sreejesh isn't going to Dhaka, it will be difficult to exclude him later on, especially at next year's Asian Games - where India will aim to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. Known for his fighting spirit, Sreejesh may want to hold onto his position for as long as possible - certainly for the Asiad and possibly even for the 2023 World Cup that is to be played in India.
Manpreet retains his spot
While most players on the wrong side of 26 haven't been named to the Asian Champions Trophy team, there are some exceptions. Manpreet Singh, who is 29 and turns 32 in 2024, will be captain of the side.
Two other players - midfielders Jaskaran Singh and Akashdeep Singh, both 27, have also made a return to the team. Akashdeep, in particular, will have a point to prove in Dhaka. He was named player of the tournament in the previous edition of the tournament in Muscat and was a surprise exclusion from the team for Tokyo. "We have picked a team that has a good mix of experienced and younger guys who will have their chance to show what they can do," noted Reid.
India remain favourites
Despite the changes to the squad, India will surely go into the tournament featuring South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan and hosts Bangladesh as favourites. Apart from India, only Japan made it to the Olympics, by virtue of being hosts. They were beaten 5-3 by India and finished bottom of the table.
India are currently ranked third in the world, a full 7 places above Malaysia who are 10th in the FIH rankings and 13 and 15 places clear of South Korea (WR 16) and Pakistan (WR 18). India were favourites at the 2018 edition in Muscat and were forced to share the gold after the final against Pakistan was rained out. Barring any interruptions from the weather, it's unlikely India will be denied this time around.