India target their 'best chance'

South Africa main threat as eves battle for the lone London spot

After being in the shadows of their male counterparts for years, the time has come for the Indian women hockey players to carve out a following of their own. The Olympic qualifiers, beginning on Saturday, offers the Indian girls one such opportunity.

The women’s team played in the Olympics last in 1980, a memory which has long faded even among keen hockey enthusiasts. A long, lean spell further pushed women’s hockey several years back and there is little excitement surrounding the team as it quietly grinds through its preparations for the event.

The qualifier, though, could not be more favourable. India is up against Canada, Italy, Poland, South Africa and Ukraine with only Proteas a rung higher than them in 12th place. The competition will take place at the venue named after India’s legendary hockey player Major Dhyan Chand. There could not be a greater impetus for the Indian eves to make history and set a new benchmark.

Coach CR Kumar said this is their best chance to ‘officially’ qualify for Olympics.
“In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, we were invited. So, it is very important for us to qualify officially. It will change the entire scenario of women’s hockey in India. It will inspire a lot of youngsters to pick up hockey sticks,” Kumar said.

“The team is motivated. We do not want to wait for another four years to qualify. The best team is South Africa, and we would like to beat them in the league matches to gain confidence for the later stage."

The team warmed for up for the event with a 4-0 victory over lowly ranked Azerbaijan in a friendly series at home last month. The series, though, exposed the various chinks in the Indian armour, like mistakes in trapping the ball. The team’s penalty-corner conversion rate also dipped in its bid to try different variations, something which the players say they have now perfected.

The start for the team has been a cause of worry, and it reflected in their 5-2 victory over Canada and their 1-1 draw against Italy in the warm-up matches a few days ago. 

Kumar spoke of making structural changes in the team with midfielders going back to support defence, keeping in mind the lack in physical strength. The Indians, though, are rated higher in skill and speed.

Captain and experienced centre-half Asunta Lakra will form the fulcrum in guiding the midfield. Experienced Subhadra Pradhan will take charge of the backline along with two drag-flickers Jaspreet Kaur and Jasjeep Kaur.

The forward line is India’s major strength comprising the talented Rani Rampaul, Poonam Rani and Anuradha Devi.

The only team in the lowly ranked pool that poses India a threat is South Africa, which scored narrow wins over the hosts in the two Test series in December. The Indian side though was without several senior players, and it will be interesting to see how a full Indian combination responds to the South African challenge.

With severe winter affecting the practice of other teams, it should be an easy passage for the home side into the final.  It opens against the weakest side in the group  Ukraine -- with former India men coach Jose Brasa as its advisor. The Indian girls would clearly like to make it a start of many good things to come in the future.

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