The last time the Indian hockey team came close to making it to the Olympics semifinals was 16 years ago in Sydney, when Poland stopped them by scoring a few seconds from time. The eight-time gold winners hit a new low eight years later when they failed to qualify for Beijing. In London 2012, India finished last among the 12 teams.
Currently world number 5 and Asian champions, India is in Rio with a realistic target—make it to the quarters and then it is anyone's game. “I am satisfied by the team's buildup to Rio,” said former player Dhanraj Pillay. “This is the team which has made history by winning a silver medal at Champions Trophy and has the right mix of seniors and juniors.”
It has, indeed, been a fantastic buildup—after the Asian Games gold came a sparkling performance in Australia, beating the hosts 3-1 in a series. Then came the bronze in the Hockey World League in Raipur, the silver in the Champions Trophy (India's first ever medal in the elite event) and a silver in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
India's preparations for Rio have uncharacteristically been on track, though with a few hiccups. It qualified directly by winning the gold at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, Korea, under coach Terry Walsh. His sacking, which was followed by the ouster of the Dutchman Paul van Ass, raised concerns, but the Dutch super coach Roelant Oltmans's move from the post of high performance director to chief coach ensured continuity. “No doubt Oltmans's association with the team from the beginning will be beneficial,” said former national coach M.K. Kaushik. “A top six finish will be a very good performance.”
The squad of 16 was chosen after careful scrutiny of the players' performance under pressure and in big matches. Seven of them have played in Olympics before. “This is a great mix of youth and experience,” said Oltmans.
Another masterstroke was to replace Sardar Singh as captain with goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh. One of the finest midfielders in the world, Sardar has been bogged down by troubles in personal life. “Sardar is carrying so much responsibility; I believe he is not performing at the level he can. I believe he will play a much better Olympics,” said Oltmans. The coach also decided to rotate the captain's armband among senior players.
Oltmans handled the situation so well that the transition went without a hitch. He called a meeting of senior players and told them about his decision to rotate captaincy. Sardar took it well. It is expected that Oltmans will use him as a withdrawn forward alongside his role of a centre half.
'The Wall of India', Sreejesh was characteristically cool after his elevation. “As a team we all share the same responsibility,” he said. “Sardar is our best player and mature enough to understand the situation. This will work best for us.”
Oltmans has built his team on the rock of defence. The inclusion of young blood like Harmanpreet Singh and Surender Kumar alongside the towering Rupinder Pal Singh and the seasoned V.R. Raghunath has bolstered the back line. The youngsters have been praised for the role they played in the Champions Trophy.
“We have a couple of options regarding the use of the four forwards,” said Oltmans. “Our focus was on fine-tuning—putting a lot of attention on our defensive structure. The last period of training was spent on fine-tuning of attackers.” The forward line, too, has a mix of dash and experience. The focus will be on vice captain S.V. Sunil, who was spectacular in the Champions Trophy.
The team spent two weeks in Bengaluru, followed by ten days in Spain. It reached Rio eight days before the first match to get used to the conditions. The change in the format in this Olympics could favour India. Twelve teams have been divided into two pools. The top four from each pool will proceed to quarterfinals. Previously, the top two teams from each pool advanced directly to the semifinals. India is placed alongside Argentina, Canada, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. Said defender Raghunath: “We need one good match and have to avoid one bad game.”