By Michael Nobbs
The Incheon Asian Games signifies a very important step in Indian hockey's revival, especially since it offers a chance for direct qualification to the next Olympic Games in Rio. To qualify seems a simple process: just win the Asian Games gold. And though India's track record here is rather poor, still I think this time they are ready.
India are ranked No. 9 in the world, they are the best prepared and most experienced team at this competition and after a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, this should be a relatively easy tournament until the final. From then on, based on rankings, I would assume they will play South Korea who are one place ahead of India in world rankings and are the second most successful team in the competition with four gold medals - in 1986, 1994, 2002, and 2006. That will be India's toughest test.
However, sport, as we know, will always throw up a few surprises. Pakistan have been trying to get their programme back on track and they have great talent just waiting to get the opportunity to play on the international hockey scene again. The match against Pakistan, India's traditional rivals, will be one to watch. Always fiery and usually brilliant, this will be one not-to-miss watching.
India play Sri Lanka in their first match, and ranked 40th in the world, the Lankans will not prove at all difficult. But it will give Sardar Singh and his team a good start to the tournament and get their attacking patterns reinforced for the later games. Sardar, flag bearer for India at the Games, will be keen to play well as he has been somewhat quiet in the past few tournaments in his new defensive role. However, his game will show his and the Indian team's real attacking style.
India next play Oman, ranked 22nd, on September 23. India have played them a number of times in the recent past and have had very little trouble. They are physically a tough team and looking out for injuries against them will be India's greatest concern. Though Oman have the ability to score with some very quick players up front, in the past they have been physically underprepared and their defensive structure crumbles to leak soft goals as they get tired.
The last game in the group phase will be against China on September 27th. Depending on their earlier results will determine how hard the Chinese will be to beat. If they have some good results early, they will be a tough opponent but this would generally be a good lead match for India before the finals.
The cross over pool with Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Bangladesh will be a tough contest between the top three, with South Korea taking out first place and Malaysia and Japan fighting to fill the second.
The final note is that the teams are playing first international series with the experimental four-quarters rule and this could benefit India because coach Terry Walsh will be able to give better direction to the team as the game progresses, which could prove decisively in India's favour.
The Hockey India League (HIL) has been using this for two years now and India will be very comfortable with how it works and what to expect. Other teams may take some time to get used to this new format.
This will be a great tournament and we should expect to see an India-South Korea final with India coming out on top to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
This column first appeared on ibnlive.com. Click here to follow their Asian Games coverage.
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Updated Date: Sep 19, 2014 14:10:09 IST