Thousands thronged the streets of Odisha’s Rourkela, hoping to catch a glimpse of the nation's biggest hockey superstars. Among those who braced the cold to make the trip, only a section will have the opportunity of watching these stars – for tickets are almost sold out. If it was not clear by now, these visuals provided conspicuous clarity to the hype that surrounds Men’s FIH Hockey World Cup 2023, starting 13 January.
It is the fourth time the competition will be held in India, but in many aspects, it promises to be a one-of-a-kind event. From the organisational perspective, the world will witness the majestic Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium. Housing over 20,000 fans, it happens to be the world’s largest all-seater field hockey stadium.
Yet, the infrastructural advancement is all but only one aspect of the story, for it is the team that is predominantly inspiring hope in fans.
The seed of optimism was sown when India ended a 40-year drought to be on the podium at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while an Asian Champions Trophy bronze and a Commonwealth Games silver have helped the seed to sprout. Now, the expectation is of fruitful rewards from the pinnacle competition.
Here, we will look at everything we need to know about India and the Hockey World Cup – from its inception to now.
India’s Journey at the World Cup
The inception of the Hockey World Cup, in 1971, coincided with a phase of incredible growth in the sport from the Indian perspective. The synchronisation of the two resulted in what is known as the ‘golden era’ of Indian hockey.
The men in blue finished third in the first edition, before embarking on a journey of steady progression – finishing as runners-up in 1973, before eventually lifting the coveted trophy a couple of years later.
However, the turn of the 1980s brought about an abrupt conclusion to India’s dominance, as since realising the dream in 1975, the nation never made it beyond the group stage till 2014.
A similar theme was followed in the Olympics as well, with the world witnessing India’s gradual transformation from being the ‘formidable forces’ to the ‘sleeping giants.’ And the sleep would remain undisturbed for a significantly long while, until things started to change a few years ago.
Indeed, India might not be the giants they once used to be, but they were certainly taking giant strides, with hopes of reclaiming what was lost.
Back in the 2018 World Cup, India advanced to the quarter-finals for the first time since their title-winning campaign in 1975.
The progress was undeniable, yet there was a need for a medal to corroborate it. It eventually arrived in 2020, when India won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics – their first in the competition since 1980.
While the recent achievements testify promise shown by the new crop of players, India can ill afford to let complacency creep in, especially during the ongoing phase of nascent rejuvenation. It is for this reason that the immediate target at the World Cup will be to ace the group stage, without keeping an eye on the trophy.
The challenge, however, will be far from a cakewalk. India’s first match will be against Spain, who might be a couple of places adrift in the FIH rankings, but have caused the men in blue a headache or two very recently.
It has been less than three months since the Red Sticks defeated India 3-2 at the FIH Pro League, here in Odisha. Even if the Spanish barricade is not as astute, the English resilience will certainly be, in India’s second group stage fixture.
The Three Lions are a place ahead of India on world rankings, and have made it to the semi-finals of all of the last three editions of the World Cup.
While it is said and believed that there are no easy matches at the World Cup, Wales will comparatively be India’s weakest opponent, at least if rankings are to be judged as a parameter. However, the structure of the competition is such that the team topping the group will have to play a fixture less and will be provided with a direct entry into the quarter-finals – making it imperative for India to bring out their best version in every encounter.
With a few pillars of the team hanging their sticks not very long ago, India will have a fairly young team in the competition. Yet, there will be absolutely no dearth of experience, especially with players like PR Sreejesh in the squad.
Since his debut in 2006, the 34-year-old custodian has been playing the role of India’s last line of defence to perfection. For the nation, for the thousands of fans who will flock to the stadiums, and for the reputation that will be at stake, Sreejesh will need to attain perfection yet again. Perhaps, for the last time.
One of India’s many heroes from the Tokyo Olympics, he stated ahead of the event “It is a great honour for me to play my fourth World Cup for our country and the special part is, this is my third World Cup on home soil. I don't think any player has had this privilege of playing three World Cups at home.”
While experience certainly hones authoritarian qualities, it comes naturally to some, akin to the likes of Harmanpreet Singh. It is only in 2015 that he first arrived on the international stage, but has since done enough to establish himself as a leader – in any and every sense of the word.
Harmanpreet will be India’s most lethal goal threat, being the only player in the team with over 100 international goals.
But a certain Mandeep Singh is not far behind, having scored 96 goals in 194 matches. The forward from Jalandhar has much more to his game than just being a forward, for he doubles up as a playmaker when coach Graham Reed wants him to.
Partnering with him at the front will be an exciting talent, who has every trait needed to become a trailblazer for the nation – Abhishek. At only 23, he has turned out to be an indispensable part of the team, scoring 11 goals in just 28 appearances.
For Reed and India, it is the complementarity of the duo which makes the attacking pairing a unique proposition to deal with for many teams, with Mandeep’s subtlety going hand-in-hand with Abhishek’s brazenness.