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INDIA HAWK-EYEING WC GLORY

With a home advantage, the men in blue are eyeing to restore the lost glory of Indian hockey – having won the ultimate prize just once in as many as 14 attempts

Reminiscing the glories savoured by the men in blue with sticks, especially during the pre and early post-Independence era, is surely arresting – more so in light of the fact that they were eight-time Olympic champions, winning six gold medals on the trot from 1928 to 1956!

Long considered as a heavy-hitter of the sport, known for sending shivers down opponents' spine, the notion has all but faded into history with a decline setting in over the years after India's triumph in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The fall can be attributed to a mix of below par performances in mega events such as the Olympics and the World Championships that make up for two of the most important events in the hockey calendar. Not to forget, the introduction of Astroturf in international tournaments back then – Indian players had struggled due to the lack of facilities back home. Running contrary to the Olympics acclamation received in the past, the Indian team has won the World Cup only once after registering a 2-1 victory over arch-rivals Pakistan in Kuala Lumpur more than 40 years ago.

Ever since then, the saga of Indian hockey has unfurled only with despondency and heartbreak for the men in blue, more or less summing up the fact that the country has had a tale of stark contrast when it comes to the aforesaid two most prominent hockey events. Moreover, it had recorded its best performance at the World Championships in the last twenty years by finishing 8th in 2010 in New Delhi. However, banging up to the date, India hosting the 14th edition of the World Cup for the third time has provided the blue tigers not only a great opportunity to end their 43-year wait but also a chance to prove themselves as a redeemed powerhouse – that too in front of the home crowd. With four teams divided in four pools – happening only for the second time ever in history – the ongoing 2018 edition in Bhubaneswar is a 16-nation tournament. In this, the table-toppers will be gaining passage straight to the quarters, while the second and third-placed teams drifting into the 'cross-over' matches will feature a total of eight teams playing each other in the knockout matches.

Interestingly, unable to translate the success and laurels achieved by their predecessors in the maiden 1975 World Cup triumph for a big chunk of time, India is seeking its second title at a time when European teams like Holland, Germany and Australia have blossomed, bagging the cup twice, alongside nations like Belgium and Argentina who too have morphed into forces to reckon with. They are backed by their own praises in the Olympics as these teams have dominated world hockey spanning the past couple of decades. Now, India is pitched among the top echelons of the sport who have taken giant leaps in terms of podium finishes and world rankings in the last few years. They look to be good enough to progress to the latter stages of the competition, having been assured of a berth either directly to the quarterfinals or playing through the cross-over matches as the situation calls for it. India, playing at home, is a favourite along with Australia, Argentina and Belgium, to lift the title.

Nevertheless, the last decade or so has witnessed a revival in parts both on and off the field of the hosts, be it in terms of facilities or showings. With artificial turfs in India replacing grassy ones from as early as 2000, the Indian hockey team has replicated some success on the field too. Currently placed fifth in the world rankings, the present squad of India with an average age of 23 – lowest in the event – may have failed to reach the playing level of western nations but have managed to prevail at other big stages such as the Champions Trophy, where they have ended as runners-up to the Aussies in the last two editions. In the 2018 edition, they showcased an admirable display only to miss out on a victory in the final by a whisker.

Under the watchful gaze of coach Harendra Singh, the young guns of the Indian hockey team exuding blithe spirits have maturely soaked in the pressure of living up to billing at least a podium finish up until now – if finishing atop the podium seems like a sight too distant to behold. Taking into account the vigorous and valiant youth players' praiseworthy feat of bagging the Junior World Cup on home soil along with Singh's tacit tactical engineering which had already fired on all the right cylinders two years back, the current group of players are led by skipper Manpreet Singh – with seven of them now a part of the senior side. They have come a long way moiling for a laudable outing in this year's World Cup by putting behind the inconsistent run earlier in the season and the unrelenting pressure of living up to the nation's great expectations.

Packing a definite sense of optimism and having tasted success already in another rung of the competition, the youngsters seem hungry to relish the glory this time around. They begun their World Cup campaign by brushing aside South Africa with a thumping 5-0 victory and then drawing with third-ranked Red Lions in Pool C, which consequently secured a place for the next phase of the tournament regardless of the outcome of the third match with Canada.

It is time that this batch of young talented players delivers and brings back the lost glory of galvanizing Indian hockey and end the much-anticipated 43-year long wait of missing out on one of the most desired prizes of the game.

Daman Singh

Daman Singh

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