6 back to back golds, 11 continuous podium finishes! This was not a local tournament, Olympics it was! This was not the record of USA or China! It was India, the Indian Hockey Team. They have ruled the turf from 1928-1956 with back to back golds at 6 Olympic Games.
In all, the Indian Hockey team is the most successful Indian sporting unit and also the team with the best record in the quadrennial event. The 1980 Moscow Olympics saw the last glimpse of the team winning a medal when they returned as the winners. In 1984, they finished 5th and the situation further deteriorated with places falling to 6th, 7th and finally last, 8th at the consecutive games in LA 1984, Seol 1988, Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996.
The national sport gradually lost its impact on the countrymen and India’s Golden era was far from reach for the team then. They consistently finished just above the bottom at 7th in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, before things got too worst that they have even failed to make it to the Olympics at Beijing 2008.
There were a large number of controversies and criticisms surrounding the Indian team about such a bad failure. They, then, put on a very spirited display with expert drag-flicker and senior defender Sandeep Singh and Captain Sardar Singh leading from the front in the qualification tournament, that saw Sandeep as the leading scorer and the ray of hope for the Indians at London 2012. But, the national team’s performance disappointed the supporters more than ever as they lost to even very low ranked teams like South Korea and South Africa just to finish at the bottom of the table at 12 losing all the 6 encounters.
The national team was then well transformed with the new rotational policy. They introduced new coach Terry Walsh, who took over from compatriot Michel Nobbs, who was responsible for qualification to London after 8 years. Terry Walsh has been a very successful coach. He led the team to the Asian Games Gold in 2014 defeating long time arc rival Pakistan in the shoot out in the final, ending a 16 year drought and this ensured the team’s qualification to Rio 2016, making them the first team to qualify for the games. He ensured all the players to be fit and followed the European style of quick play which yielded results as they won a rare away test series against 3 time world champions and long time World No.1 Australia and also clinched Glasgow Commonwealth Games Silver losing only to the Kangaroos in the final.
The prolonged war of words between Walsh and the Hockey India president Narinder Batra and the Sports Authority of India, eventually led to the resignation of a constructive coach midway through the Rio preparations in 2014. The Sports Ministry was prone to severe criticism for handling the resignation in the poorest possible way.
Then, Hockey India appointed Paul Van Ass (who succeeded in leading the Dutch to a silver at the London Olympics losing to Germany in the finals 2-1) at the end of January 2015 just to be sacked after a brisk tenure of 5 months in July 2015 during which he led the team to a Azlan Shah Bronze, even with the contract active till 2018, again because of a spat with Mr. Batra and Hockey India, leaving him the 4th foreign coach of the national team to leave the position in an unceremonious way, succeeding Jose Brasa, Michel Nobbs and Terry Walsh.
In such stringent situations, Hockey India has appointed the then High Performance Director, Roelant Oltmans as the Chief coach of the national team. He has been with the team since October 2013 and took to the task instantaneously. He has continued his predecessors’ tactics of playing the attacking game and this started giving results.
The men in blue bettered their Bronze to Silver at Azlan Shah 2016. They even won the silver at South Asian Games 2016, Guwahati losing 1-0 to Pakistan in the final. They have also created history by winning their first ever Champions Trophy medal,that too a Silver, at London 2016, boosting the young team ahead of Rio. The team then went on to a 6 nations tournament where the team under-performed with a relative young team (1 win -2 losses – 2 draws). The team is presently on a 2 match tour of Spain before leaving for Rio.
The team’s performance has improved a lot since Oltmans took over charge, we have started to play the aggressive Australian style play with experienced forward S.V.Sunil combining well with young Akashdeep Singh and Nikkin Timmiah. In goal, P. R. Sreejesh has been a barrier for the opposition since long and is well respected by naming him the skipper for the team at Rio, ripping off experienced and long time lead Sardar Singh. The team will rely on experienced defenders in Rupinderpal Singh and V.R.Raghunath who were also part of the 2012 campaign.
In the middle will be well experienced former captain Sardar(30yrs, 249 caps) who will play alongside young Manpreet Singh (24), Devender Walmiki(23) and Surender Kumar(22). Young defender Harmanpreet Singh(20) who impressed the selectors during the silver medal campaign at London made the cut alongwith halfback Chinglensana Singh back. Danish Mujtaba, Ramandeep Singh and the returning S.K.Uthappa are the others in the squad.
With the team following a western rotational policy and yielding results, it now stays as how the best 16 men are going to perform at the mega event. There are high stakes on the Indian team as they are entering the tournament as World No.5 just behind Australia, Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain. The Indian team has a tough draw with Australia, Netherlands and Argentina(world no.7) also in the same group(B) along with Ireland and Canada. Reaching the quarterfinals will not be much of a problem for the men in blue if things fall in place as expected at 3rd place in group and might be facing 2nd placed team of group-A, mostly Great Britain.
Even though the rankings and statistics defy the Indian team winning a medal, the young blood has now and again proved that their spirit is far from predictions. The preparations and latest performances are just another boost for the team and a ray of hope for the supporters to expect a podium finish after 36 long years. Sreejesh and his men are up and rearing for the challenge and so should we be ready to cheer them all the way!
Can The Men In Blue revive the lost glory?
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