Road to Rio: Indian men's hockey team are genuine medal prospects for first time in years - Firstpost

Road to Rio: Indian men's hockey team are genuine medal prospects for first time in years

Name: Indian Hockey Team

Discipline: Hockey

Category: Men's

Qualification: The Indian men's hockey team qualified for the Rio Olympics back in 2014, when they beat Pakistan in the 2014 Asian Games at Incheon to earn a direct Olympics berth.

Strengths: A young and talented unit, the current Indian hockey team has been relatively untouched by internal politics or controversies. Their biggest strength, therefore, will be this unity and team spirit, as has been evident from their recent medal-winning performances.

Past record (recent best performances): Gold medal in 2014 Asian Games at Incheon
Silver medal in 2014 Commonwealth Games at Glasgow
Silver medal, their first ever, in 2016 Champions Trophy
Silver medal in 2016 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup

Past Olympics performance: While India has been the team with the most number of gold medals in Olympic history, that record is from the team's illustrious, distant past. More recently, the Indian team finished 12th at the 2012 London Games and did not qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games.

Rio Prospects: The Indian hockey players are often touted to be medal hopefuls, but Rio 2016 offers them a chance to be actual medal contenders after the silver medal-winning performance at the recently-concluded Champions Trophy. If they can maintain their strong teamwork and produce another inspired show under new captain PR Sreejesh, they stand a chance to make it to the podium.

The Indian men's hockey team. AP

The Indian men's hockey team. AP

The Indian men's hockey team are considered as Olympic medal hopefuls every time they participate in the Games, mainly because of the rich history of the sport. India are, after all, the most successful field hockey team at the Olympics. However this time, the medals hopefuls look like genuine medal contenders, owing to their strong performances in the recent past.

Since their Olympic qualification through winning the 2014 Asian Games gold by beating arch-rivals and defending champions Pakistan, Indian hockey has been on a positive trajectory. Earlier that year, they had clinched the Commonwealth silver, losing to Australia in the final. In the 2015 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, India won the bronze after beating South Korea. In the same event, they won the silver the following year, losing to Australia in the ultimate match. The pattern was repeated at the 2016 Champions Trophy as well, where India lost the final to Australia in June this year. However, this performance stood out as it was India's first ever silver medal in the tournament's history, won in the penalty shootout after the team fought to maintain a 0-0 draw.

These performances have raised hopes from the new look unit. However, this also puts an added burden of expectations on the relatively young team.  However, there is also a certain depth of experience with seven players having been part of the 2012 London squad – PR Sreejesh, Sardar Singh, Manpreet Singh, SK Uthappa, VR Raghunath, Danish Mujtaba and  SV Sunil.

But the journey till here has not been easy, especially due to factors off the field. A major setback was the rapid sacking of foreign coaches, with Paul van Ass being sacked only a year before the Olympics. (Terry Walsh was sacked just days after he coached the team to gold at the 2014 Asian Games.) However, the then High-Performance Director, Roelant Oltmans, was appointed coach and he has done remarkably well with the team. The 61-year-old Dutchamn, who has been associated with Indian hockey for close to three years before the appointment, played a big role in making Indian team the strong unit it is today.

In another significant decision, Hockey India named senior goalkeeper PR Sreejesh as the captain, removing long-time skipper Sardar Singh. It was under under the keeper's leadership that Indian won the silver medal at the blue riband six-nation Champions Trophy and he was rightly rewarded. Sardar, who has been going through a rough patch both on and off the field, due to allegations of a sexual assault, was captain since 2012 and will be part of the team at Rio.

This year, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) has also introduced a new competition format. As per the new format, the 12 teams have been divided into two pools of six, with each team initially playing round-robin games within their pool. Following this, the top four teams from each pool will advance to the quarter-finals. Previously, the top two teams from each pool used to directly qualify for the semi-finals. India is placed in Group B along with Argentina, Canada, Germany, Ireland and Netherlands, which may be considered the easier pool of the two, and gives them a stronger chance of making the quarters.

It's been a really long time since India won an Olympic medal in its national sport, a sport in which they once dominated and boast an overall tally of 11 Olympic medals. India has won a total of eight hockey gold medals at the Games — the most by any country — of which six were won successively from 1928–1956. But the last of these came way back in 1980 at the Moscow Games. This young team may have grown up watching the heroes of 1980 play and will be keen to replicate that success.

The men's hockey team may not be the outright favoruites for a gold medal after 36 years, but they are sure to improve on their 12th place showing at the 2012 London Games, if not go further. However, both the team and the country's expectation will be a podium finish.

Squad: PR Sreejesh (captain and GK), Harmanpreet Singh (defender), Rupinder Pal Singh (defender), Kothajit Singh (defender), Surendar Kumar (defender), Manpreet Singh (midfielder), Sardar Singh (midfielder), VR Raghunath (defender), SK Uthappa (midfielder), Danish Mujtaba (midfielder), Devender Walmiki (midfielder), SV Sunil (forward and vice-captain), Akashdeep Singh (forward), Chinglensana Singh (midfielder), Ramandeep Singh (forward), Nikkin Thimmaiah (forward).

Coach: Roelant Oltmans

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