A powerhouse in the sport in the yesteryears, India’s fortune in hockey at the Olympics hasn’t been very favourable since 1980 when they won their last Gold. The Indian men, who have won 8 Gold medals at the Olympics, won their 7th in Tokyo in 1964.
41 years on from Moscow, India will be back in Tokyo in a few weeks as they aim for Gold number 9. But can they change trend?
In the last three Olympic games, the men’s team failed to make the cut in 2008 and moved up to 8th in Rio, while finishing 12th in London.
For Tokyo, however, there is a fair amount of optimism and expectation from the side who are currently ranked 4th, their best ever as the Games come calling.
Good Run of Form in Recent Years
The Indian men’s hockey team have been in-form in the build-up to the Olympics, with the last couple of years seeing them do quite well.
In the 2020 FIH Pro League, India registered two wins over Netherlands and drew 1-1 against the top ranked Belgium and Australia.
Earlier in the year in April, India have twice beaten defending Olympic champions Argentina in the same tournament.
It’s on the back of performances like this that coach Graham Reid’s side will go to Tokyo 2020 and look to go one or two better than their quarter-final finish in Rio.
For Reid’s side, the toughest challengers at the Games are likely to be Belgium, Australia, Holland and Argentina.
India is placed in Pool A in the men's event, alongside current Olympic champions Argentina, and Asian champions Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Spain.
With Manpreet Singh at the helm, the Indian team has achieved important milestones, including winning the Asia Cup in 2017, the Asian Champions Trophy in 2018 as well as winning the FIH Series Final in 2019 over the past four years.
India also made the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar and performed exceedingly well in the FIH Hockey Pro League under him before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the schedule.
Apart from Spain, who India have not faced over the last couple years, they have beaten every other team at least once since 2019.
It is the lack of experience in attack that will be a worry even though the defensive unit’s skills and experience will be among the stronger points. Most of the forwards Shamsher Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Mandeep. None of them have played at the Olympics before and have largely played together as an attacking line in national camps due to the pandemic.
The Indian men’s team is a healthy mix of youth and experience for the Tokyo Games with Manpreet and PR Sreejesh, both veterans of many a battle leading the way.
Amit Rohidas, Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Nilakanta Sharma, Sumit, Shamsher Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, and Lalit Kumar Upadhyay are the 10 players who will make their Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Along with them are the seasoned campaigners Sreejesh, Manpreet, Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Surender Kumar, and Mandeep Singh.
A couple of back up goal-keepers will be added to the squad before the team leaves for Tokyo.
Manpreet’s deputies at the Tokyo Games will be Birendra Lakra and Harmanpreet Singh.
The squad has been based out of Bangalore for almost all of the ongoing pandemic and consider it as a blessing in disguise, explaining that it has helped the team better the understanding between each other on the field of play.
While getting good results against strong teams before the Games in Japan will give the Indian team a lot of confidence, it is the performance at the highest stage that will matter the most.
One of the things that has plagued the team has been the inability to come good in the high pressure situations such as the close finishes or even the penalties, or even holding own to a slender lead – all aspects of the game that have caused some concern for the side.
Speaking on the challenges of the expectations on the younger players, Sreejesh had to The Quint that he has been giving the youngsters a reality check about the pressures of the Olympics.
“Everyone expects to perform well and bring back a medal to the country and we are working for this. But what is the most important is your performance, especially under pressure. As a senior player or by taking the older brother’s role it is my responsibility to tell them what is the reality so that they are prepared. If they can understand and accept the reality, it will help them perform better,” Sreejesh said.
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