High hopes

Four years ago in Santiago, Chile, Indian hockey encountered its worst moment in history.

Failing to qualify for the Olympic Games was unthinkable till then, but when Britain edged out the eight-time champions in the final of the qualifiers, that dreadful prospect too turned real, plunging the national game into crisis.

The thumping 8-1 win over France that helped India regain a spot in the Olympic firmament has partially wiped away the pain of that bitter Santiago defeat and reignited the belief that there is still place for Indian hockey at the highest level.

Their five opponents in the Olympic qualifiers, admittedly, weren’t strong enough to mount a serious challenge but taking them lightly could have had dangerous consequences, with the tournament offering just one spot for the London Games. As it turned out, India demolished each and every rival along the way, winning all their six matches with displays laced with aggression and positivity.

The moment he took over, India’s Australian coach Michael Nobbs had liberated the players from the clutches imposed by debates over style, embracing the attacking method that is so ingrained in the Indian psyche.

To adopt such an approach calls for fitness of the highest order and, along with trainer David John, Nobbs worked tirelessly to fine-tune this aspect. The Delhi show that saw India slamming in 44 goals while conceding just nine underlined the effort that went into the shaping of this team.

Sixteen of those goals came from the stick of one man, Sandeep Singh, who has turned a star performer. Sandeep’s penalty corner conversions were crucial in India’s progress in New Delhi and vitally, it addressed an area of concern that has often pegged the team back in major international tournaments.

Build-up events had raised concerns over India’s defence but with their opponents busy picking up the ball from the back of their nets, the hosts weren’t tested too much in this department, barring for a few moments in the game against Canada.

Across the world, there is no coach who hasn’t looked at the Indian team with envy for the talent it oozes with. Harnessing it and channelising it in the proper way have been the twin challenges that many men found too daunting in the past. Hearteningly, Nobbs seems to have discovered the right formula but his real test will come in five months’ time when the team takes on the high and mighty of world hockey.

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