When the most in-form player gets injured during a major tournament like the World Cup, it can break the spirit of the team.
Indian midfielder Hardik Singh was carried off the field after he pulled his hamstring in the final quarter against England on Sunday. The extent of the injury will only be known after further scans, although head coach Graham Reid said that it might not be as bad as it looked when he first came off the field. The hamstring injury might not be too bad but he’s very likely to sit out India’s final group match against Wales on Thursday.
What Hardik brings on the field
Hardik helped India clinch a vital win against Spain in the opening match, scoring after making a superb run from the midfield into the circle.
In the two matches so far, he has 5 shots on goal – more than anybody in the Indian team – and 4 circle entries. For a midfielder, these are solid numbers. Hardik is also crucial for India’s attacking transitions. He has completed 67 passes in two matches, second-best among the Indian players after Harmanpreet Singh.
Hardik’s reading of the game and pressing are also key components to India’s off-the-ball gameplan. He has 4 interceptions and one crucial tackle in two matches, more than any other Indian midfielder and second to only Harmanpreet.
As his performance and numbers show, it’s not an easy task to replace a player like Hardik.
India’s position in Pool D and subsequent quarterfinal opponents may well depend on the number of goals they score. Reid’s side is expected to overcome Wales’ challenge without much trouble, but given England play before the hosts, goal difference could be key.
This is where Hardik’s drive and relentlessness could’ve been very useful. India might beat Wales comfortably still, but his energy on the field will be missed.
If the injury is not serious, Indian management’s biggest task would be ensure his fitness for the crossover match or quarterfinals, depending on where India finish. A knockout match for India without Hardik would be a big blow.
Who can step in the absence of Hardik?
Hardik’s absence will increase the workload for other midfielders. Manpreet Singh is the best candidate to do the work Hardik does on the field. In fact, Manpreet used to do it till the latter’s emergence pushed Manpreet a bit deeper during the match.
Modern hockey is often about how you press to win the ball back. Manpreet has played more than 300 matches since he made his debut 12 years back so there’s plenty of experience. But will his legs support the intensity needed to run the match from the midfield? That’s the important question.
Vivek Sagar Prasad is another player who could share the burden in the midfield. However, he came into the tournament after two injuries and has a lack of game time. While he did well against Spain and England, it seemed like he needed more time to get back to his previous best. Before his injury, Vivek was a burst of energy in the midfield, picking the right passes to penetrate the circle and chasing the attackers when the team lost the ball.
Nilakanta Sharma and Shamsher Singh can also do the defensive work needed from a midfielder, but they are not the same as Hardik when it comes to taking the ball forward and creating chances.
There is also a like-for-like replacement for Hardik in Rajkumar Pal, who’s in the reserve list. Like-for-like in the sense that Rajkumar is also a midfielder who can go up and down the field like Hardik. But he’s short on experience and the management is unlikely to call him into the main squad unless they are very sure that Hardik’s World Cup is done.