“We Have the Ability to Win Against Any Team” – Harmanpreet Singh

India start their Asian Champions Trophy campaign on Thursday evening, and it marks the beginning of three very important months for Indian hockey. As they set foot on the newly laid turf of the magnificent Mayor Radhakrishnan Hockey Stadium in Chennai, they will have one eye on the Asian Games, which could also guarantee India a ticket to the Paris 2024 Olympics. To set things in context, I was joined by Harmanpreet Singh, the captain and best drag-flicker in the team, and Craig Fulton, the Head Coach who will be facing his first real home challenge in Chennai since taking over the reins a few months ago.

Boria: Let me start with you, coach. What is your take on the timing of the tournament? Coming just six weeks before the Asian Games, does the timing force you to experiment a bit more because if key players get injured ahead of the Asian Games, it could be an issue for India?

Craig Fulton: I think the timing is fine. It allows us to test ourselves competitively with teams that we will be competing against in China just six weeks before the Asian Games. You will know where you stand and because the competition is at home, we will also get the home support. It is about pacing ourselves and being ready. We have returned from Spain on the Tuesday and trained on the Wednesday. We know where we stand, and every member of the 25-player pool knows it. I will also be treating the tournament as a run-up to the Asian Games, and do things that will ensure we are all fully ready for the bigger challenges ahead.

Boria: Skipper, yet another important tournament after the home World Cup. As a player, you are clearly back to your best. How are you looking at this competition both as a player and leader? India will be hoping for you to score from penalty corners, and in front of a home crowd, that can be added pressure.

Harmanpreet: By now, we have played enough in front of our fans, bhai saab, to know what it entails. We have played the World Cup, the Pro League and a lot of other games. So no, I don’t think there is any added pressure. I will actually look to doing well, and enjoy doing so. Coming to the tournament, I think as a team we are in a good space, and have played consistently well and got some good results of late. To beat Netherlands 2-1 gives you a lot of confidence, and even in the first match in Spain which we lost, the number of shots on goal was more from us. So we have played good hockey for a while now, and there is no reason why we will not do so here in Chennai.

Boria: Coach, this question may be a bit far-fetched just yet, but when I see world hockey at the moment, I see Australia and Belgium with slightly aging teams. India have done well against the Dutch, and against Germany. So would I be right in saying that we have a realistic chance in Paris 2024, which is exactly a year from now?

Craig Fulton: There are two ways to look at things. First is what is a dream scenario. And second, what is a more real scenario. If you see where we are ranked at the moment, fourth, and there is a 15-point gap with the third-placed team, you will know that you are in the top half. Had it been seventh or eighth, I would have told you that no, it is slightly unrealistic at the moment. But with us, Paris is a very real goal. Yes, we have to qualify and, as with every other team, that’s priority number one. And that’s why the Asian Games is very important. If we win the Asian Games, the qualification is taken care of. But yes, we have everything we need at the moment to be the best prepared for Paris, and it is a realistic goal to have.

Boria: May I ask you to respond to the same question, skipper?

Harmanpreet: I think we have a very good team, and also have the experience to know what we need to do on the big stage. We have played the best European teams for a while now, and if you see the results, you will agree we have the ability to win against any team. It is like the coach said – we have it all. What we need to do is prepare the best, and give ourselves the best chance in Paris. And ye,s we will look to do well in the Asian Games and qualify for the Olympics.

Boria: Let me ask you a follow-up question, and it has to be about the Pakistan game. India v Pakistan is always special, and however much the players say it is just another game, it isn’t. How are you looking at the Pakistan match?

Harmanpreet: (Laughs). Yes, you are right in saying it is a very special game. I will not deny that there is always talk in the team about this match, and we all feel that this one game can’t go away from us ever. So there is that extra intensity for sure. It is not just during the build-up, but you will also see this intensity on ground when the match is on. Having said that, it is on us the players to not let this intensity get the better of us. We need to be smart to be able to give our best and win the game. That’s what it is all about when you play a key match like Pakistan.

Boria: Coach, your first India-Pakistan game. Have the boys told you about how special it is for us in India, and what’s your take on it?

Craig Fulton: Yes, I have been watching India-Pakistan matches in both hockey and cricket, and have a clear idea how special this rivalry is. And yes, there has been a fair amount of chat on the culture, and why this is a very special game. Having said that, I need to be smart about it. I wouldn’t want to beat Pakistan, and then not qualify. That doesn’t work for me. You know what I mean. It is a game of hockey that I want to win as Head Coach of this team, but it is also a game that we need to win to make the final or qualify. It is one game among many to win the title. So while knowing that it is a special game, I will also keep the big picture in mind.

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