Can Indian hockey end its 36-year wait for a medal at Rio?

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© Gettyimages

Can Indian hockey end its 36-year wait for a medal at Rio?

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Arun S Kaimal


On Friday, the Indian men’s hockey team ended their 36-year-old knockout jinx that has bugged them since the heroics of Vasudevan Baskaran and co. But can they win a medal at Rio?

“An Olympic hockey gold medal at last,” wrote K Datta in the Times of India describing the Indian men’s hockey team’s triumph in the 1980 Olympics. A 16-year wait for an Olympic gold medal had ended in Moscow, and Horst Wein, the German coach of the Spain team that lost to India in the final, said that the gold medal would help India return to the top position in the world hockey. But little did anyone predict that it would be the start of another downslide that would dwarf the previous. On Friday, the Indian men’s hockey team ended their 36-year-old knockout jinx that has bugged them since the heroics of Vasudevan Baskaran and co. But can they win a medal at Rio?

This is a question that every Indian fan has asked himself many a time in the past. Four years ago, the Indian team reached London hoping to do the same. Many predicted them to be a dark horse at the tournament, and as fans, our hopes were sky-high.

Six matches, six defeats, 21 goals conceded, and 8 goals scored – that was finally India’s stint at London as they finished at the bottom of the 12-team competition. Failure to qualify for Beijing was a “Black Day” in Indian hockey, but London was an embarrassment. Indian hockey had fallen from their great heights, and a return to anywhere near the big guns of World hockey looked nearly impossible after the debacle at London.

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Four years is a long time in sports. After their failure to win a single point at London, India reached Rio as a totally different team. They were World No.5, Champions Trophy runners-up and Hockey World League Final bronze medallists. At the helm of affairs was one Dutch legend - Roelant Oltmans, who was appointed in July 2015 after the controversial exits of Michael Nobbs, Terry Walsh and Paul van Ass. The captaincy had also changed hands. PR Sreejesh, who watched the debacle at London from the bench, was selected to lead the team from the front.

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Once the draw came out, a place in the quarter-final looked a real possibility. Although the group had defending champions Germany, 2012 Olympics silver medallists Netherlands, and 2014 World Cup third-place winners and Pan American champions Argentina, India just needed to beat Ireland and Canada for a place in the last-8. The change in format surely increased Sreejesh and team’s chances, but the ghosts from London still haunted them.

The start against Ireland gave a rest to the fears about a repeat of London, although the 3-2 scoreline did not reveal the full story. Experts pointed to the match against reigning champions Germany and warned that it would be the biggest challenge for the Indians. The score showed 1-1 at the half-way mark, and every Indian fan, who was watching the match, knew something had changed in Indian hockey. The defence stood tall throughout the half and did not give away a single penalty corner in the first thirty minutes.

Roelant Oltmans’ side counter-attacked and used the pace of SV Sunil and co. to trouble the German defence, while they pressed high up the pitch to stall the German attacks. We saw a resolute defence from India, for the first time in many years, and the Germans knew that they had a match on their hands. As it turned out, a lucky last-minute winner helped the defending champions edge past India for a victory. But, it was clear that Indian hockey was back where it truly belonged.

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In the next match, they ended a winless run against Pan American champions Argentina, that dated back to 2009 and then gave a scare to Netherlands, who were having an unbeaten run in the tournament until then, before surrendering 1-2. Despite the defeat, India qualified for the quarterfinals with a game in hand. The last group against Canada, who have lost all their matches and conceded 20 goals, should be a cakewalk for the Indians, and with a possible quarter-final clash against Spain waiting, India should be considered as a medal contender from now on.

However, there are still some chinks that needed to ironed out before we begin saying the word medals in anything but hushed tones. Although the defence has improved, India’s attacking prowess has taken a hit in the tournament. The team has scored only seven goals so far in this tournament, and six of them have come from penalty corners. After four matches, India is second last in terms of goals scored in their group and is behind Ireland, who have scored eight. When it comes to penalty corners, India have scored six goals from 21 opportunities. That is one goal in 3.5 penalty corners, and against Netherlands India wasted a total of eight opportunities, finding the goal in only one. With the penalty corner specialists – Rupinder Pal Singh and VR Raghunath – leading the scoring chart, and with the forwards yet to open their account, India would need a much-better performance from the drag-flickers to move up in the tournament.

Former skipper Sardar Singh’s new role as a forward also did not seem to be working for Roelant Oltmans’ side with the veteran player finding it difficult to assert his presence on the game. Sardar Singh was moved from the midfield to the forward line because of his tendency to slow down the game, and with India employing a counter-attacking strategy, the former captain is now doing the same to the forward line.

 © Facebook - Hockey India

Another concern for coach Oltmans before the quarters will be India’s tendency to concede in the last quarter. Although they have only conceded seven goals in total in the four group matches, four of them have come in the last fifteen. A goal in the dying minutes also snatched away a point from India in the game against Germany, and the men in blue will have to improve on their performance in the last quarter to go ahead in the tournament.

If the standings remain the same in both groups, India would run into Spain, who have scored 12 goals and conceded five in their four group games, in the quarters. Although Spain is ranked six places below India in the rankings, the Europeans had the better result in the recent meetings between the two countries. India lost 1-4 and 2-3 in the two friendly matches played against Spain just before the Olympics, and in the Six Nations Tournament in Valencia in June, both teams drew 1-1.

If India can get past Spain in the quarters, they could face a familiar team in the semis. Netherlands or Germany can finish at the top of Group B and will face the fourth-placed team from Group A in the quarters. Barring any major upset, Netherlands or Germany will move into the semis and could face India for a place in the finals.

It is clear that, if India are to return with a medal from Rio, they will have to improve on their performances and add more goals to their game to defeat teams like Netherlands and Germany. After the failures of 2008 and 2012, a quarter-final spot seems like a dream come true, but a medal at Rio will go a long way in propelling India to a place among the big guns in World hockey - A place they truly deserve after dominating the sport in the past. 

Also, read: How the 1976 Olympics changed Hockey and how HIL's new rule could take India back to its glory

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