New Delhi: In a surprise move, India on Tuesday axed ace drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh for the upcoming Hockey World League (HWL) Semifinal and the team's chief coach Paul van Ass justified the decision, saying it was a tactical move aimed at trying out "variations" ahead of the Rio Games.
Besides Rupinder, midfielder SK Uthappa, strikers Mandeep Singh and Satbir Singh were the other players to have been dropped from the national team for HWL Semi-final to be played in Antwerp, Belgium from June 20 to July 5.
Rupinder's axing came as a shock for all and sundry as over the last couple of years he became an integral part of the Indian team and also formed a formidable duo alongside VR Raghunath in the side's drag-flick department.
But Van Ass clarified his choice and said by no means Rupinder was out of his scheme of things. "Of course, I am aware about that (only one drag-flicker in the team) but Jasjeet also has a good penalty corner. It's also time for us to try variations," the chief coach told reporters during a training session at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium here.
"He (Rupinder) is not gone, he is not done. He didn't do anything wrong but we also have to be prepared for any eventuality. Let's be honest when Olympic starts and suppose your two drag-flickers are injured, what do you do then? So, it's always a threat and its good to try out something else now," Van Ass said. All the four dropped players featured in last month's Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia, where India finished a creditable third, and the four-match bilateral Test series against Japan which India won 3-0.
Talking about Uthappa's ouster from the team, Van Ass said: "It's not over for the boys, they are not gone. I think he (Uthappa) doesn't play the way he is supposed to. He is a big athelete, his body is very big but he doesn't use it too much. I asked him to do that more and he can comeback again. "During team selections you have to be your best and also you have to fit in the tactical plan of coach.
"Now we have a new core group of 33 and from that group I can always pick my players for a big tournament. Those guys will have to fight for positions until the Olympics," he added. Defenders Jasjit Singh Kular and Gurmail Singh,
midfielder Lalit Upadhyay and striker Yuvraj Walmiki made a comeback into the side for the 10-nation tournament. "Jasjeet is a good player, he is quick on his feet. He is not only quick but very secured. He is also a good passer and also he can take penalty corners. That is exactly what I am looking for," Van Ass said about Jasjeet's selection, who last played for India in last year's World Cup.
"Yuvraj did well in the Japan series. He is got a chance and he has to prove himself now," he added. The coach also pinpointed the grey areas on which he feels the team needs to work harder. "Against top teams if they are fit enough they can do very well but we have problems in creating ball speed and that is a key area which we need to address," he said.
"Defence has been a worry for long. Defending is a team effort. Ten players and the goalkeeper together have to make it work.
"If you look at the domestic hockey here, be it juniors or national they like to play 5-5 hockey, which means 5 hanging at the back and 5 upfront and there is no midfield play. But what I want to do is play 10-10 which means either all 10 players be on the side of the opponent or be on our side because that makes you less vulnerable. It's part of the total defence system," Van Ass added.
The HWL Semifinal featuring 10 teams is divided into two pools -- Pool A and Pool B. India is placed in Pool A alongside France, Poland, Pakistan and Australia whereas China, Ireland, Malaysia, Great Britain and Belgium are in Pool B.
Asked about his target for the upcoming tournament, Van Ass said: "The target is to take the next step together, both in hockey and in bonding. It will be nice if we can produce some results."
India captain Sardar Singh too opined with his coach and said the changes were part of a specific plan. With India already assured of a place in next year's Rio Olympics, Sardar said there will no pressure on them in HWL Semi-final.
"There will be no pressure on us. We will just concentrate on our own game. We will take this tournament as a preparation for the HWL Final. We will try to work on our mistakes," he said. "Our target will be to play our best hockey and if we can do that results will automatically follow."