After clinching the last of their eight Olympic hockey gold medals at Moscow in 1980, India’s hockey fortunes took a nosedive, leaving them running among the 'also rans' for four long decades, before the pensive wait ended with a bronze medal in 2021 at the Tokyo Olympics.
A hockey medal, even of the bronze metal, was enough to send the nation into a tizzy and underscored India’s romance with the game that nearly a century ago had provided the nation its first taste of sporting glory.
The Glory Days
The dazzling stick-work that caught the hockey world’s fancy when India first appeared at the Amsterdam Olympic in 1928, went on to secure them six successive Olympic gold medals till 1956, even though the golden run was interrupted by the Second World War. Despite the first three Olympic medals coming while the team represented a British colony, India’s hockey triumphs were relished across the developing world. A year after the independence came the London Olympic Games in 1948 where a partitioned India still proved to be the gold standard on the hockey field.
After their stranglehold on the Olympic title was loosened by a lone-goal loss to Pakistan in 1960, reclaiming the Olympic gold medal became a national goal, which was achieved four years later in 1964 at Tokyo.
Despite winning two more global titles in the next two decades – the 1975 World Cup and the 1980 Olympic gold medal – Indian hockey faltered in keeping pace with the emerging international challenge and adapting to the changes in laws governing the sport.
Back Among The Medals
The Japanese capital of Tokyo once again proved to be India’s lucky venue as both their men and women’s hockey teams advanced to the semi-finals in the Olympics in 2021. The men ended an Olympic medal drought of 41 years, securing a 5-4 victory over Germany in a high-scoring bronze medal play-off.
The nation went crazy celebrating a bronze medal, felicitating the players and showering massive cash rewards on them, which even caused some awe among gold winners Belgium and silver medallists Australia.
The fans’ expectations of another medal, hopefully a gold, is now putting immense pressure on the Indian team, whose performance is rather indifferent going into the World Cup on home turf.
Receiving a dubbing at the hands of Australia in the final of the Commonwealth Games has brought to fore the need to reignite a fighting spirit in the Indian squad, which displayed some improvement in the recent tour of Australia that even saw India win a rare Test match against the Kookaburras despite a big series loss.
Pressure on at Home World Cup
World Cup holders and reigning Olympic champions Belgium and two-time World champions Australia start the tournament as the overwhelming favourites in Odisha’s twin venues Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, while hosts India are trying to inculcate discipline and structure in a squad unsettled by retirements and a spate of injuries since the Tokyo Olympics.
The Tokyo medal is weighing heavy on the Indian team, which has experienced several injury-forced layoffs and lack-lustre results even as it tried to inject youngsters to replace the ageing and retiring players. The transition has not been entirely smooth, and this was driven home by the massive defeat inflicted on India by the Australians in the final of last summer’s Commonwealth Games at Birmingham.
The Indian side that secured an Olympic bronze medal one and a half year ago was a settled and experienced squad that had been playing together for a long period. Over a period, that squad had learnt to keep its game structure intact in big-ticket matches against the top teams. That luxury is not quite available to coach Graham Reid and newly-appointed captain Harmanpreet Singh.
Skipper Harmanpreet asserts that his players are putting in the hard yards to repose the faith of Indian fans. Eager to get the Indian fans “excited again” with their fine show, Harmanpreet may not get much rest throughout Indian matches. As the ace penalty corner shooter in the squad, the Indian captain will need to be on the pitch most of the time despite the toll it takes on his energy reserves. That could be both a crucial factor and a risk that India will run during the upcoming World Cup.
The news from within the Indian camp is that coach Reid, aware that his neck is on the chopping block despite his contract running through to the 2024 Olympics, has put his foot down to pick the squad he wants to field in the World Cup.
Reid Making Big Calls
Reid has brought back some key players from injury-forced layoffs and even left out a few youngsters from the Olympic squad who were available for selection. There is some consternation at the squad he has picked, prompting some sarcasms among critics who term India a two-player squad that leans heavily on its veteran goalkeeper and penalty corner flicker captain.
There is weight in the argument as India have depended too much on the seasoned P.R. Sreejesh to thwart rival strikers when the deep defence has been caught on the wrong foot, while Harmanpreet’s drag-flicking skills remain the feature of their goal-scoring skills. India’s biggest challenge will be in seeking to command the midfield, for which Reid has pulled back main poaching striker Akashdeep Singh.
Returning to the squad after missing the Olympic Games, Akashdeep will no longer be playing in his favourite role of a poacher upfront. Instead, his place in the attack will be shared by Mandeep Singh, Lalit Upadhyay and newcomer Abhishek. In this squad, Akashdeep has been pulled back to bolster the unsettled midfield, which still depends heavily on former captain Manpreet Singh, who will be appearing in his third World Cup. Sreejesh, however, will go stay one step ahead with his fourth World Cup appearance.
The captaincy musical chairs has witnessed the leadership mantle being passed around over the past few years before the honour for this World Cup was bestowed upon Harmanpreet. Playing under him will be the seasoned Sreejesh and Manpreet, who between them shared the captaincy duties since the 2016 Olympic Games. Vice-captain Amit Rohidas too has experienced team leadership when he led India in a FIH Pro League match, but he serves the team best as a daring rusher in thwarting rival penalty corners.
How well midfielder Vivek Sagar Prasad, defender Varun Kumar and sriker Upadhyay have recovered from their injuries will be a crucial factor for India’s prospects in a World Cup where they will again have vociferous support from the capacity-packed stadiums both at Bhubaneswar and Rourkela.
Support from the home crowd ought to work in India’s favour and rattle the rivals, but it often happens to put additional stress on the home side. The crowd’s support can be a double-edge sword that can induce errors and give a leeway to the rival strikers. This is the reason the team management is telling the players not to let the crowd play on their minds.
Placed in a preliminary group that does not feature an overwhelming favourite, India will go out looking to top the pool and seal the quarter-final spot.
India’s main challenge is expected from England and Spain, both of whom have tasted victory and defeat against India in recent encounters. England shared the honours in two encounters in the Commonwealth Games, but India emerged winners in the crucial semi-finals.
Only last month, a young Spanish team left the Indians stunned with a 3-2 victory in the FIH Pro League fixture in Bhubaneswar, after India had prevailed 3-1 in a penalty shootout in their first encounter. Not to forget, the young Spainish side are not even among the top European teams at present. That illustrates the challenge Harmanpreet’s side faces as India go out to seek a place on the World Cup podium.
(Sandeep Nakai has reported on Indian hockey for four decades)