Hockey

Indian men’s hockey looks to reclaim its bragging rights

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Playing alongside only for the second time ever, and with fewer expectations, the women will back themselves to make it to the top eight

On August 6, the Indian men’s hockey team will take its first step towards possible redemption at the Olympics and a shot at history. A day later, the women would step out on the Olympic Hockey Centre turf against Japan, more realistic of their journey, but hoping to surprise everyone, including themselves, on sport’s biggest stage.

For only the second time ever, both Indian men and women would be together at the Olympics, but the routes they took and the expectations from them are vastly different. As Asian champions, Indian men were the first to qualify, more than 18 months in advance. That has helped the team build its core plans and study likely opponents without worrying about making the cut.

Constant figure

Coach Roelant Oltmans was a constant figure despite a series of changes in personnel. Known to give players space and freedom, the Dutchman has a ruthless streak when it comes to performances. The team stayed focused with no one taking his place for granted. It is now beginning to look like a well-oiled unit.

P.R. Sreejesh is solid under the bar, the defence of V.R. Raghnath, Kothajit Singh and Rupinderpal Singh is strong, Manpreet Singh is reliable in the middle, Sardar Singh — freed of the burden of captaincy — can fit in anywhere, given his immense skills. With more control, S.V. Sunil has developed into a dangerous feeder upfront but the rest of the attack needs to sharpen.

India opens its campaign against Ireland, playing in its first-ever Olympic by virtue of finishing third at the European Championships ahead of teams like Great Britain and Belgium. Ireland may seem like a novice but the European outing makes it a tricky opponent. India would do well to avoid any complacency. India has defeated all the other teams in its pool — the Netherlands, Germany, Argentina and Canada — in recent times. But none of these would be an easy opponent with the first two keen on retaining their podium finishes from the previous edition.

Once into the last eight — it would be presumptuous to say India would definitely make it but highly unlikely that it won’t — it would be up to the team to step up. India has been a different team in knockouts in the past year but it would be keen to avoid placing fourth in the group, which might pit it against Australia in the quarterfinals.

A lot simpler

It’s a lot simpler for the women. Coach Neil Hawgood has repeatedly said that the women have already overachieved by qualifying, given that its ranking is 13th in the world, but now that they have, there is no point in simply making up the numbers. There are fewer expectations from them but the young side, with most players still in their early 20s, is backing itself to make it to the top eight.

It isn’t impossible either, given that they only have to ensure being in top four out of six teams in the league stage. Japan and USA are definitely beatable, which gives India a good chance to advance.

Rani Rampal and Vandana Katariya upfront, Sushila Chanu in the middle, Deep Grace Ekka and Deepika Thakur at the back and the experienced Savita Punia under the bar — the team’s core picks itself and has been together long enough to understand each other.

The absence of Ritu Rani, dropped on form and attitude, is something the team would need to recover from.

The Australians and Europeans, not to mention the 2012 silver medallists Argentina, though, are too far ahead of the curve at the moment, but the experience of being there would be a reward in itself.

The hopes of a billion Indians at the Olympics has, for the longest time, hinged on how the men’s hockey team performs.

It’s only now that other sports have begun staking a claim to the honour.

That freedom from the burden of expectations may well be the best thing to have happened for the sport that is keen to reclaim the bragging rights in the country.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 5:15:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/hockey/Indian-men%E2%80%99s-hockey-looks-to-reclaim-its-bragging-rights/article14506239.ece

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