Heavy burden of history

India take on formidable Dutch as they begin their quest to regain lost glory

Heavy burden of history

They are nowhere near the top, either in rankings or in performance but that wouldn’t stop the country from expecting a miracle from the Indian hockey team at the Olympic Games.

Blame it on history. Every Indian team at the Olympic Games has been wei­ghed down by the past – eig­ht gold medals bring a heavy burden – but past will have no relevance when action starts at the Riverbanks arena on Monday.

India, placed in Pool B, are up against Holland in the first match. As opening matches go, it couldn’t have got tougher but there are no easy matches at the Olympic Games and as coach Michael Nobbs says, it is good to have the big matches out of the way early. Nobbs has been trying his best to temper expectations. He has repeatedly said the team is still not at the same level as Australia, Germany or Holland. A top-six finish is what the Australian has been targeting.

Preparatory matches haven’t exactly gone the way Nobbs would have liked, as the team struggled against Spain and Britain. Worryingly, penalty corners too didn’t fetch India much success. Perhaps, that is what Nobbs had in mind when he said he was trying to fix certain things before the team takes the field for the first match.

Sandeep Singh’s strikes from short corners were important in India’s progress to the Olympic Games this time after they missed out on an Olympic appearance for the first time in their history at Beijing 2008. But at this level, getting penalty corners itself will be a difficult exercise, putting the onus on strikers to land field goals.

The good news from the Indian point of view is the recovery made by Sardar Singh and Ignace Tirkey. Sardar is the fulcrum around which the team’s fortunes revolves and the other day, he had declared that he was fully fit and ready for the Games. India also need Tirkey’s experience at the back, with Sandeep and V R Raghunath not really polished performers.

The Dutchmen, champions in 1996 and 2000, are attempting to regain the crown after their bid in Beijing was thwarted by Germany. Coach Paul van Ass has taken some tough decisions in their bid, dropping penalty corner ace Taeke Taekema and also striker Jeroen Hertzberger but veteran Teun de Nooijer, playing in his fifth Olympics, is very much there to lend experience.

Among the other teams in India’s pool, defending champions Germany, ranked No 2 in the world, are a formidable unit at any major championships while New Zealand have the confidence of the Azlan Shah triumph behind them. South Korea, as usual, will bank on fitness, speed and setpiece skills, meaning India won’t have a moment to relax in their pool.

Tournament favourites Australia head Pool A and having swept everything before them in the last three years, look primed to add the Olympic gold to their collection. Historically, Aussies have failed to fulfil their promise at the Olympic Games – their only success came at Athens 2004. Four successive Champions Trophy wins, a World Cup triumph and the Commonwealth Games gold light up Australia’s path to London. With such an imposing record, Aussie coach Ric Charlesworth, having guided the women’s team to two gold medals, will believe that he can make it this time with the men.

Great Britain, playing at home, will look to spoil those plans while Spain and Pakistan are the other challengers in the pool, trying to prove their credentials again at the top level.

Groupings: Pool A: Australia, Great Britain, Pakistan, Argentina, Spain, South Africa. Pool B: Germany, Holland, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Belgium.

Monday’s matches (all times IST): South Korea vs New Zealand (1.00 pm); Australia vs South Africa (3.15 pm); Spain vs Pakistan (6.15 pm); India vs Holland (8.30 pm); Britain vs Argentina (11.30 pm); Germany vs Belgium (1.45 am).

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