When the young Indian team lifted the Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup, beating Belgium 2-1 in the final, it was the first time a host nation had won the prestigious event.
Skipper Harjeet Singh and Co had prepared hard for the last two years under Harendra Singh. The coach was desperate to win the cup as under him India had missed bronze in 2005 at Rotterdam.
The win helped the 18-member squad draw the attention of the national selectors who will be drafting names for the core group of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Even before the junior team’s celebrations were over, the under-18 women created history by winning the Asia Cup bronze in Thailand. Striker Sangita Kumari struck a brace to steer India to a comfortable 3-0 victory over Korea in the play-off.
The success of Indian hockey at the world level, especially with the men and women’s teams making the Rio Olympics, made 2016 one of the most successful years in two decades. Performance and planning went hand in hand and after a long time Indian hockey looked to pose a challenge.
The win at the 2014 Asian Games at Incheon, beating Pakistan 4-2 in the penalty shootout, ensured a Rio berth for the men’s team.
The men lost to Belgium 1-3 to bow out of the Olympic quarterfinals, and the women finished a poor 12th. Of their four matches at Rio, the women could only draw against Japan 2-2 but making the Olympics was a big achievement as it happened after 36 years. They had a fourth-place finish at the 1980 Moscow Games, where the men’s team won its last Olympic gold.
The pain of Rio lessened when India won the Asian Champions Trophy for the second time, beating Pakistan 3-2 in Malaysia immediately after the Games.
The experienced Sardar Singh proved his worth by winning the man-of-the-match in the final, while custodian PR Sreejesh was brilliant in the semifinal, and drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh was able to convert 11 penalty corners.
In fact, the year did not start on the right note as the men lost to Pakistan at the SAF Games in Guwahati. Silver at the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament in Malaysia helped restore some confidence, and the first-ever silver at the Champions Trophy before the Olympics raised Indian hockey by a few notches.
The year turned out to be different, as efforts towards betterment were noticeable. Besides the players’ performance, the election of Hockey India chief Narinder Batra as head of the world body (FIH) just before the Junior Men’s World Cup was another important development.
While the loss at Rio is a reminder of the men’s team’s bid to regain glory, the success of the junior side has given hope for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.