1983 remains a seminal year in India’s sports history. When Kapil’s Devils lifted the Prudential World Cup on a heady June evening at Lord’s, the event not only swung the balance of power towards the sub-continent, it marked a decisive, paradigm shift in country’s sporting preference. Coming as it did just a year after the unforgettable humiliation at the hands of Pakistan at the Asian Games final in New Delhi, cricket, as old-timers would recall, proceeded to capture the national imagination like never before.
A certain Milkha Singh once told this writer: “Cricket has finished all other games in this country.” While the claim may be contested on factual grounds, what the legendary athlete implied is beyond doubt. It is in this context that one must view India’s Rio campaign.
Over the past decade and a half, India’s men’s hockey team has given us only a handful of moments to rejoice- the 7-4 win over Pakistan at Champions Trophy (2003), beating England at the Commonwealth Games on penalties (2010), and winning the Asian Games gold (2014) come instantly to mind. These, however, are interspersed with performances ranging from shambolic to shameful. Since winning their last Olympic gold in 1980, Indian men have failed to go beyond fifth position (1984, Los Angeles). Thrice they finished seventh (1992, 2000, 2004), while in 1988 and 1996, they finished sixth and eighth respectively.
The nadir came in 2008, when for the first time in 80 years, they failed to qualify for the Olympics. When they eventually did, in 2012, they finished last. Seven players from the Rio-bound squad of 18, including current captain PR Sreejesh, were part of that botched bid. Sreejesh remembers the humiliation with some pain. “We lost quite a lot in London. Thereafter, every time we heard ‘London’, our minds would go back to that (Olympics). The pain of London has brought us here.”
The thoughts are revealing as much as they are refreshing, for four years hence, Indian men are certain that they are not going to Rio to make numbers. The results have been encouraging: a CWG silver (2014), an Asian Games gold (2014. It also made them the first team to qualify for the Olympics), two bronze (2012, 2015) and a silver (2016) at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, a bronze at Hockey World League Finals (2015) and a historic silver at the Champions Trophy (2016).
The transformation can be gauged from the marked improvement in fitness levels. The Indians are no longer seen huffing and puffing on the turf, though they still have a lot to do to match the speed and power of Australia, Netherlands and Germany. In Sardar Singh, India have one of the most skilful midfielders around, and should he be moved in the forward line, Manpreet Singh can prove quite a handful with his pace and precision.
SV Sunil, known for his blinding pace, is also world-class, and so is Sreejesh under the bar. VR Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh can be trusted with penalty corners, but glitches remain in defence. While Indian teams have historically been guilty of conceding late goals, in the recent Six Nations Invitational, the team gave away early goals as well against reigning Olympic champions Germany, Argentina and Ireland. Sreejesh, however, doesn’t read too much into it. “We were experimenting with combinations and formations,” he said.
India are grouped with Argentina, Canada, Germany, Ireland and Netherlands. Apart from Netherlands and Germany, all teams in the pool are ranked below India, who occupy fifth place in FIH rankings. All that, however, will cease to matter when teams enter the Olympic Hockey Centre come August 6. “The pool doesn’t matter. It’s all in mind. If you think Australia will be impossible to beat, you will never beat them. We dominated them in the Champions Trophy final before going down on penalties. So it doesn’t really matter who we play as long as we stick to our plans,” Sreejesh said.
The girls, led by Sushila Chanu, have already made history by becoming the first women’s team from the country to qualify for the Olympics in 36 years. The baggage of history, however, sits lightly on the bunch.
“It all depends on how we play on a particular day. On our day, we can beat the best,” says Chanu, pragmatically.
However, India have not had ‘their day’ for most of the past three months. They lost their last three series, and eked out a solitary win over 18th ranked Canada.
“I agree the past few tours were not very good. It is natural to go through a slump in form. I think we played a lot better in Darwin (4-nation). We lost to New Zealand there due to two contentious goals. Against Japan, we conceded a last-minute goal,” the 24-year-old defender said.
Like their male counterparts, the team has a knack of conceding last-minute goals. Star forward Rani Rampal puts it down to lack of concentration. “Lot of times we lose focus towards the end. It could be because of lack of stamina or fitness, but we are working hard to overcome it,” she told HT recently.
Skipper Canu agrees. “We need to be alert till the last minute. No let-ups, no easy chances. Haar nai maanni hai (can’t concede defeat).”
“Also, we tend to concede early goals which make us play catchup. My plan is to hold the opponent for first 10 minutes and get into a nice rhythm. If the opposition doesn’t score in the first 10 minutes, they will start getting nervous and we can mount an attack.”
Another critique of the team is its lack of physical strength vis-a-vis the Australian and European girls. This makes the team vulnerable to body blows and eventual loss of possession.
“Countries like Germany and Great Britain are quite physical. They indulge in body fight, which means they can take away balls from us and go on the offensive. To counter this, Neil (Hawgood, chief coach) has introduced a stringent gym regime. The focus is on building muscles to counter body fights.”
“The coach has also asked us to tighten our defence. We will use our elbows to keep the opponents away. The earlier coach (Mathias Ahrens) focused on developing our skills while Neil stresses more on running, gym and physical strength. He wants us to play attacking, Australian style hockey, and I think it will help us grow even after the Olympics.”
India start their campaign on August 7 against Japan before taking on Great Britain (Aug 8), Australia (Aug 10), US (Aug 11) and Argentina (Aug 13). All teams in the pool are ranked higher. The team, however, will do well to keep all that at bay and concentrate on achieving a top-eight finish, something that Chanu believes is a realistic target. Should they achieve it, among other things, a write-up on Indian hockey may cease to start with a not-so-inadvertent reference to Indian cricket.