Just over six months ago India had their first podium finish in a hockey tournament since 1982 when they won bronze at the Hockey World League finals. Suddenly there was talk as to whether the former powerhouse of World hockey could medal in Rio.
At the time it looked extremely premature.
Why? Because India had failed to win a single game in their pool matches. The best they could do was achieve a 1-1 draw with an understrength Germany. The format of the competition saw all four teams from each pool cross over and play in quarter finals.
India were worthy winners against Great Britain 2-1, and but then lost their semi final 0-1 to Belgium. This meant they would play the Netherlands for Bronze. At half time they were 0-2 down and looked down and out, but a goal late in the third quarter turned the game. India not only pulled level but then went ahead 3-2, but the Dutch levelled. Then India took a two goal lead, but when they should have shut out the Dutch to claim victory, the let them back in and drew 5-5. India won the shoot out and claimed bronze, their first medal in a major tournament for 33 years.
Yet in truth they had only won one game in the tournament within 70 minutes. So to suddenly say that they would win a medal in Rio seemed a little far-fetched.
Fast forward six months and the Champions Trophy in London and suddenly that dream became a little more realistic. In their opening game India put Germany to the sword and should have won the match, but ill-discipline and players being sin-binned late in the game allowed Germany to fight back and draw 3-3.
The next day India again defeated Great Britain 2-1. Their next match against Belgium, was their most lacklustre performance and they went down 1-2. A win against Korea meant a win against Australia in their last match would book them a place in the final. They beat Korea but lost to Australia 4-2, and had to wait on the results of other games. Luckily for India the results went their way and they were in the Champions Trophy final for the first time, and their first final in a major tournament for 36 years.
India were superb in the final. Shreejesh, the “wall of India’ looked impenetrable. Harmanpreet in defence again showed he has ice in his veins, so calm was the youngster under pressure. Raghunath who has been criticised for giving away as many penalty corners as he scores managed to keep his feet out of the way and made timely tackles. The young midfield, rather than carry the ball transferred it quickly and stretched the Australians. The forwards were tireless in trying to find openings in attack, but their defensive work was also outstanding. This was a true team performance by India against the World number one. There were no goals, and the match was settled in a shoot-out.
There has been plenty written and spoken about the shoot-out, but it is history now. They key thing was India finally put in strong performances in a major tournament against the best teams in the World. A sign that come the Olympics they really will be a genuine outside chance to challenge for the medals.
On the back of their performance in London they moved up two places in the World rankings, to fifth, ahead of Belgium and Argentina.
Straight after the Champions Trophy India went to Spain to play in a six nation invitational tournament. Their sole win here was against Ireland, they had two draws against Spain and Argentina, and lost to Germany and New Zealand.
Some will say that we should not read anything into these results, but if India is to genuinely be a medal contender they needed to perform better at this tournament. This may sound harsh, but it is a fact that India rarely has beaten any of the top teams in a major tournament.
In the World Cup, Olympics, two edition of the Hockey World League, and two Champions Trophies, in the last four year cycle, they have had the most success against England/Great Britain. They have only beaten the Netherlands once in normal time at the 2014 Champions Trophy, and Belgium once in normal time at the same event. They have not beaten Australia, Germany, Argentina or New Zealand.They will have to do so if they wish to medal in Rio.
India showed at the Champions Trophy that they can match it with the best in the World. The key will be the coach picking the right combinations that allows the ball to be transferred quickly from defence to attack, where India can use the speed merchants they have going forward, like SV Sunil, who is in the form of his life.
India has always claimed that the introduction of artificial pitches at the 1976 Olympic Games was done to stifle their talent. This time around the new format at the Olympic Games may well suit the Indians. With quarter finals coming in, rather than having to finish in the top two in their pool India will need to finish in the top four to make the knock-out stage. Two wins from their five games could well be enough. Then it will come down to three games to determine whether they medal, and what colour medal they end up with.
India has not finished in the top four since 1980 when at a weakened Olympic Games due to a mass boycott they won gold. IN 1972 they won bronze and prior to ’72 had contested 10 consecutive Olympic finals and won seven gold medals.
It has been a very long time since India has been in this position. A year ago it would have been a brave man to bet on India. Now one feels that they could well cause an upset. They definitely have the talent to win a medal, it just depends on how they perform on the day in the key matches. If they don’t medal, one thing is for sure, India could well have a say in who does.