India will start favourites to win the five-Test hockey series against Belgium beginning on Friday. Any other projection would take a lot of convincing considering not just India's higher world ranking but also their obvious strength and depth in talent.
Belgium, surprise qualifiers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics later this year following a 4-3 win against world champions Germany in the 2007 European championship, would need to reproduce that form and sparkle if they hope to put it across India.
Belgium's Australian coach Adam Commens admitted as much on the eve of the series. "We are aware that India are higher ranked than us and are playing at home. Theirs is a very talented side and we expect a tough series that should only sharpen our players," said the former Australian World Cupper and Olympian.
His counterpart, Joaquim Carvalho, hedged his bets when he conceded that it would be a folly to under-estimate Belgium despite India's 4-1 win in the 2007 Champions Challenge tournament in Boom, Antwerp, when the teams last met.
"After all, Belgium beat World's No.1 team Germany (in the bronze medal play-off) last year to qualify for Beijing and I am sure that victory would have boosted their confidence levels. Also, in modern hockey, you cannot take any team for granted," said Carvalho.
Belgium have brought a very young squad that has no fewer than seven under-21 players, including 17-year old midfielder Felix Denayer of whom Commens spoke highly. They also have a few experienced players, notably 33-year old Thierry Renaer who, incidentally, is two years older than the coach.
Commens persuaded Renaer to come out of retirement as he thought the team needed more experience especially in the defence that the coach has restructured.
The Belgium players arrived here a full five days prior to the start of the series in a bid to acclimatize to the local conditions that Commens believes is similar to what is expected in Beijing during the Games in August.
"This is an important series for us since we do not have any other major international competition until June. On our return home, the players will be involved in domestic league and that is about the only competition we will get," said Commens.
In contrast, the Indian players have been playing virtually non-stop since Carvalho took over from Vasudevan Baskaran as the chief coach last August. However, the coach ruled out the fatigue factor saying the hectic schedule was to be expected by a professional hockey player.
Last year, India played in three tournaments, finishing third in all. The players returned home and regrouped after a short break for a training camp before participating in the month-long Premier Hockey League in Chandigarh from where, they went to Bangalore for further training earlier this month.
On Feb 1, the Indians will fly to Perth, Australia, on a two-week training-cum-competition tour before heading home and then emplaning for Santiago, Chile, for the Olympic qualifier (March 1-9).
"I am aware that the players have been busy with hockey, but we have taken care that they get some time off the game to recoup. In any case, there is nothing much that can be done about the schedule and it is something that a modern-day hockey player should expect and deal with," he said.
Perhaps, the only concern for India is of a niggle star forward Prabhjot Singh is nursing, but Carvalho said there was no cause for worry.
The Indian squad will be strengthened next week when two juniors Samir Baxla and Diwarkar Ram join the team on their return from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they are involved in an eight-nation Under-21 tournament.
"Overall, I am quite happy with our preparations and hopefully, we will deliver strong results in the series against Belgium," said Carvalho. "We have a lot of young and talented players and I plan to give all the 24 players an opportunity during the series."
All the five Tests, scheduled for Jan 25, 27, 28, 30 and 31, will be played under floodlights at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium. Amarjit Singh from Malaysia will be the neutral umpire.