The Indian men’s hockey team come to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as one of the favourites to clinch a medal, something that hasn’t happened over the past few editions of the Summer Games.
After the eight-time Olympic gold medallists had failed to qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008, the London Olympics saw the team finishing at the bottom of their group table after losing all their matches. Though the team showed promise to reach the quarter-finals in Rio Games 2016, they couldn’t be considered a medal contender.
However, there has been a drastic improvement since then. From bringing in an Olympic-medal winning coach in Graham Reid to the emergence of numerous young talents from domestic leagues, the Indian men’s hockey team has gone from strength to strength and stands as one of the nation’s medal hopes in the upcoming Olympics.
Introduction of coach Graham Reid
Hockey India’s move to replace a well-loved and respected coach in Harendra Singh with Graham Reid could have easily gone south. Coming to the Indian hockey set-up in April 2019 as an Olympic silver medallist and four-time Champions Trophy winner, Reid’s biggest challenge was to quell India’s age-old apprehension of how a foreign mentor would do better than a home-grown coach, who knew the players and the language well.
However, Reid - who had previously mentored the Australian and Dutch national hockey teams and was in charge of the Amsterdamsche Hockey & Bandy Club (AH&BC) - knew which aspect of the Indian hockey team he could improve the most. Within months of his appointment, the Indian team looked mentally stronger with their conundrum of conceding late goals untangling fast. Their success overseas since 2019 should also be credited to Reid, who instilled the belief in the players.
Men in Blue’s unwavering form
After taking on the Indian men’s hockey team, Reid’s biggest advantage was his side’s easy run in the 2019 calendar season, where his team hardly faced any of the higher-ranked opponents and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics comfortably. And, the Australian should be credited for training the side to achieve it without breaking any sweat.
What followed India’s Olympic qualification was a series of impressive performances against the top eight opponents both at home and on the road. India started 2020 with the FIH Hockey Pro League campaign, where they defeated world no. 3 side Netherlands, world no. 2 team Belgium and the defending Olympic champions Argentina in their own backyard.
Though COVID pandemic played a huge dampener to India's imperious momentum and Olympics preparation, the team didn’t look rusty when they returned in 2021. Manpreet Singh and Co. defeated Germany and Great Britain away from home, before outplaying Argentina once again, this time in their own backyard.
Coming together of youth and experience
The seeds to unearth raw talents, which the national hockey board had sowed with the introduction of the Hockey India League back in 2013, has served their purpose although the tournament is now defunct.
While Graham Reid’s India will be led by veterans like goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, midfielder Manpreet Singh, forward Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and more, all of whom have multiple Olympic appearances between them, it is youngsters who will provide the mileage.
Reid has included young midfielders like Hardik Singh and Vivek Sagar Prasad and forwards like Shamsher Singh and Dilpreet Singh in his Olympic squad, all of whom will be crucial in India’s relentless Summer Games campaign where the team is scheduled to play five group stage matches in a week.
India will have to face challenges from New Zealand, Spain, Australia, Argentina and hosts Japan in the group stages to book a place in the quarter-final of the Tokyo Olympics.
Featured Image: Twitter/ Hockey India