The year 2019 erased the bad memories of 2018 for both men's and women's hockey teams. The year 2018 was about missed opportunities, of missing the medals and Olympic qualification berths, but 2019 saw them ticking the right boxes.
In 2018, the senior Indian men's hockey team went to Jakarta with a single goal in mind—to win the gold again and also secure the Tokyo 2020 direct qualification. It also saw the end of a short innings of Harendra Singh as coach. The reigns of the men's team were then entrusted to Australian Graham Reid. It took him to some time to figure out the right team combination and after a sixth-place finish at the 2018 year-ending FIH Men's World Cup, things only got better in 2019.
Prepping at the start of 2019 with some matches against lower-ranked teams, it was time for the FIH Series finals in June in Bhubaneshwar. This was a qualification tournament for Olympic qualifiers. Yes, the new qualification process can be confusing. But India beat South Africa 5-1 in the final of the FIH Series and now the Tokyo Olympics qualification was a step away. Before the Olympic qualifiers, the team toured Spain and Belgium where it came up with fine results.
The qualifiers saw them come up against Russia. Played in front of the home crowd, yet again in Bhubaneshwar, the first of the two-leg qualifier saw the team beating the visitors 4-2, followed by a 7-1 thrashing in the second match, to seal the Olympic berth.
A few youngsters have graduated well in their roles under Reid. A no-nonsense operator and understudy to super coach Ric Charlesworth during his stint as head coach for Australia, Reid has the support of seniors like P.R. Sreejesh and Manpreet Singh in shaping up a team for Tokyo 2020. The FIH World Cup 2018 showed that India needs to do a lot to bridge the gap between the top five countries and itself. Reid has nine months to ensure the team plays at the top level.
In women's hockey, the Rani Rampal-led team sealed the Tokyo Olympics berth but not before some hiccups. They, too, had to participate in the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima to qualify for the Olympic qualifiers later in 2019. Having done it successfully, they later took on USA in the Olympic qualifier in Bhubaneshwar. While they posted a comfortable win in the first match against the visitors, the Indians were given a scare by USA in the second one. It was Rampal's winning goal and an aggregate of 6-5 that helped India seal its berth at Tokyo—India's third appearance at the Summer Olympics.
But beyond the results, it is what coach Sjoerd Marijne and scientific adviser Wayne Lombard have done with the team that is remarkable. 2019 was about injury management, recovery, improving fitness levels, all with an eye on securing the ticket to Tokyo. Focus was on getting fitter, stronger, faster, and it was achieved.