A resurgent Indian men’s hockey team aims to put behind the humiliation of 2012 Olympics as it opens the Rio Games campaign against Ireland on Saturday with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.
Four summers ago, India’s players were happy with the Olympic qualification after the team failed to make the cut for the Beijing Games in 2008. In London, they finished 12th — the last place in the competition.
With a rich history of eight Olympic gold medals, Indian hockey fans may not be at fault for calling the London campaign a disaster. But for a team that failed in qualification for Beijing, making it to London was an achievement in itself.
However, the manner of its losses, including one to South Africa, have left a scar in the erstwhile global hockey king’s history.
However in the last four years, many things have changed in Indian hockey. With respectable performances in several world tournaments, India has shown that it can challenge the current hockey superpowers.
Just after the London Games, India’s Australian chief coach Michael Nobbs, who helped the country recover from the Beijing no-show shame, left. The team’s high performance director Roelant Oltmans guided the team to a silver medal at the Asian Cup.
Another Australian, Terry Walsh came in and phased out ageing veterans from the squad in his aim to make the team best in Asia. At the 2014 World Cup, India didn’t qualify for the medal rounds but the margin of their losses to top teams dwindled.
Later, India was crowned Asian Games champions. The win showed the team’s improving fitness levels, capable of adjusting to the modern style, blending its traditional skill-based approach to the modern fitness oriented outlook.
But another coach controversy ensured Walsh’s departure, forcing Oltmans to be at the helm again. India performed decently at the 2014 Champions Trophy, losing only to Pakistan in the bronze medal match at Bhubaneswar.
India’s hunt for a new full-time chief coach started, landing Dutchman Paul van Ass who promised to deliver a tactics-oriented game.
Under him, India’s upward performance remained intact, flourishing at the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Final in June, 2015. But he too made a swift exit, following a tussle with the federation.
Oltmans was back at the helm for the third time and ended India’s global medal drought since 1980 Olympics triumph with a bronze against the Netherlands in the HWL Final in December 2015. It helped India rise to sixth in the global rankings.
This year also has seen India’s growth continuing with the rare silver medal finish at the Champions Trophy in London in June.
These wins have meant that India will aim to reach the semi-finals in Rio. Their squad, a mixture of youth and experience, does not get intimidated by the world powers.
They rub shoulders with the world’s best players in the cash-rich Hockey India League (HIL) and the experience has plenty to do with the rise of the team.
Captain P.R. Sreejesh will be goalkeeper, while the defenders Rupinder Pal Singh and V.R. Raghunath have big roles to play — along with their drag-flicking duties.
Sardar Singh, one of the best midfielders of the current generation, may have been seen the captain’s armband snatched from him due to off-field issues, but will remain India’s lynchpin as per as dictating the pace of game is concerned. Manpreet Singh’s performance will also be crucial.
Among the frontmen, S.V. Sunil will hope to rise to the occasion and lead a band of young attackers — Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah.
Only one regular who will miss the Games is defender Birendra Lakra, who has been ruled out due to knee injury.
India are now fifth in the rankings and are clubbed with with the Netherlands, two-time defending champions Germany, Argentina, Canada and Ireland in Group B. The top four teams will enter the quarter-finals.
The other group features reigning world champions Australia, Britain, Belgium, New Zealand, Spain and hosts Brazil.
While Australia will aim to capture the Olympic title to complete a rare double of holding both the world and the Games title at the same time, Germany will look to dismiss the fears that the days of its “Golden Generation” are over.
The Olympic Games will mark the final tournament for five-time World Player of the Year Jamie Dwyer of Australia and the 2004 champion will aim to go on a high.
The Netherlands will aim to end the title heartbreak of London Games and World Cup losses in the finals. For Britain and Belgium, it is a case of bridging the gap between the top three teams.
Moreover, the rejigged format which will see an extra round of quarter-finals will make the competition more exciting and it might help mid-ranked teams like India.