Indian Hockey at Asian Games: Favoured to win but still on edge | Hockey - Hindustan Times

Indian Hockey at Asian Games: Favoured to win but still on edge

By, New Delhi
Sep 21, 2023 08:11 AM IST

The India men's and women's teams are the top seeds but that is not always the easiest position to be in

If the Indian men’s hockey team were expected to defend their title five years ago in Jakarta, in Hangzhou, they will start as the outright favourites by a quite a distance. Being the favourites, as they saw in 2018, does not guarantee a gold but it means that they have put in consistent performances on the international circuit. And that does matter.

The Indian men's hockey team which will take part at the 19th Asian Games(Twitter/DilipTirkey) PREMIUM
The Indian men's hockey team which will take part at the 19th Asian Games(Twitter/DilipTirkey)

Simply put there is no match for Harmanpreet Singh and Co in Asia, as witnessed by the huge gulf between them and other outfits at the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) in Chennai last month. Undoubtedly, India will be the odds-on favourite to clinch gold on October 6.

India are the highest ranked team in Asia at world No.3 (next is Malaysia at No.10), reigning ACT champions, Olympic bronze medallists and the Asian Games hockey competition should be nothing less than a cakewalk for Craig Fulton’s boys.

“We get to play in the Pro League which is a huge advantage. We get to play all the top teams in the world consistently with 16 games in a season where other Asian teams aren’t playing. Because of that there is a gulf," says the India chief coach, who took charge of the team in April.

Grouped with world No.29 Bangladesh, holders and No.19 Japan, No.15 Pakistan, No.47 Singapore and No.66 Uzbekistan, India are expected to romp into the semi-finals of the 12-team event. And then, it will all boil down to the knockout games – the semis and final.

Five years back too, India cruised into the last four unbeaten only to be stunned by Malaysia via penalties in the semi-finals and had to be content with only a bronze. In the ACT final too, Malaysia once again stunned India by taking a 3-1 lead. The hosts had to really dig deep before staging a sensational comeback to win the title on a sultry evening.

“European teams always play at the top level but with Asian countries you never know. At times they play brilliantly, at times they don’t. In the last Asian Games, nobody thought that Japan would win gold, but they did. We also have a tendency of getting stuck against Malaysia. We have to stop that,” said former skipper Manpreet Singh.

Significantly, it is important to note that in hockey these days, none of the teams play their actual hand unless it is a major tournament. Most will hold an ace up their sleeve, waiting for the right moment.

“Teams like South Korea and Malaysia are tough. I wouldn’t say there is a gulf in a one-off match. Tournament hockey is different. It is difficult and ranking sometimes goes out of the window when you are the underdog. If you are doing a good job, you can upset the apple cart. And it has happened (in the past),” added Fulton.

In 16 previous editions, India have reached the final 12 times but won gold only thrice, the most recent being in Incheon in 2014. This year’s Asian Games is important as gold will earn India a much-deserved ticket to the 2024 Olympics. If not, Harmanpreet and his boys will be under immense pressure to earn a slot in Paris in the qualifiers in January 2024.

For Indian women, the competition will be slightly trickier. Unlike the Indian men’s team, Savita Punia and Co are not the kind of team that will completely blow the opposition away. India may be the highest ranked Asian team at No.7 in the world, but holders Japan (world No.10), China (No.11) and South Korea (No.12) are not far behind.

Grouped with Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, India are expected to enter the semi-finals with ease but only then will the real tournament begin. To India’s credit, India have never finished below fourth at the Asian Games, standing on the podium in six out of 10 editions.

India clinched gold at home when women’s hockey debuted at the Asian Games in New Delhi 1982 but since then the top step of the podium has proven to be a bridge too far. India returned home with a bronze from Incheon 2014 and reached the final to claim silver last time around in Jakarta 2018 but Janneke Schopman’s girls have a realistic chance of bringing home the gold this time around.

“We want to go to the Asian Games to win and qualify for Paris. If we are able to do it, that's a testament to all the 34 players (core group) and the work we did at the camp. For selection of the 18 players, we cannot just take the ones with the most caps. I try to look at the team and try to see what each individual can bring in and how they can complement each other. Some of the junior players have developed tremendously in the last couple of months and hence, have become a part of the team," said Schopman.

Having made the cut the Olympic Games the last two times, India women would want to make a hat-trick of appearances at the global Games next year.

“This is going to be my first time competing in an Asian Games as well. I try to emphasise that you can either go into every tournament believing it is the most important one or believing it's just another tournament. It does not matter whether it is your first time in a tournament or the last time. What matters is that you are here now and you have to make the most of the opportunity and make it count. As a team, that is what we will try to do as well," Schopman concluded.

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    From badminton to cricket, Sandip Sikdar writes on many sporting disciplines. He has the experience of working in digital, news agency as well as print organisations. Motorsport remains his first love.

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