Asian Games: Challenges remain for Indian hockey teams despite favourite tags
Indian men's and women's hockey teams will be targeting to secure the 2024 Olympics quota by winning gold medal at Asian Games 2023.
The Indian men's hockey team, despite boasting eight Olympic gold medals, faces an intriguing paradox at the Asian Games in China. They've not been as dominant in this continental competition as their global achievements would suggest.
Now, fresh from securing an Olympic medal after a 41-year gap in Tokyo in 2021, they embark on the journey of winning back the Asian Games gold medal, that they last won in 2014, with the favourite tag on their shoulders.
Ranked third in the world, Harmanpreet Singh and his team stand head and shoulders above their Asian counterparts. However, India must tread carefully, lest they repeat the stumble of 2018. Despite an undefeated run to the semifinals, they were denied the top spot, settling for bronze after a heart-wrenching loss to Malaysia in penalties.
Under the guidance of Craig Fulton, who transformed India into a hard-pressing unit after taking over the reins following India's lackluster performance in the 2023 Hockey World Cup, the team is poised for a determined bid for the gold medal along with a precious Paris Olympic berth.
Slotted in Pool A along with Pakistan, Japan, Bangladesh, Singapore, and Uzbekistan, India is likely to deal with tougher challenges from the knockouts. It is Malaysia, the Asian Champions Trophy runners-up, that stands out as a potential stumbling block. Despite India's victory in the Asian Champions Trophy final in Chennai earlier this year, Malaysia's initial 3-1 lead served as a stark reminder that India's path to victory will be anything but easy.
Team philosophy: Solid defence, rapid counterattacks
As captain Harmanpreet emphasised before their departure, no team will be taken lightly, and every match will be played with unwavering intensity. Fulton's influence on the team's philosophy has been profound. Shifting away from their traditional attacking style, the focus now lies on a sturdy defence and creating scoring opportunities from counterattacks.
Fulton's strategy centres on making it tough for the opposition to score, emphasising organisation and discipline. This shift, while still a work in progress, has shown promise in recent matches.
This new approach, emphasising defence, marks a departure from India's historic style of play. While known for their attacking flair, Fulton's belief is clear: a solid defence provides the foundation for victory.
Furthermore, key players like Hardik Singh, Manpreet Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, and Vivek Sagar Prasad are tasked with initiating rapid counterattacks just beyond the 23-meter line. Among them, Manpreet and Vivek have truly flourished in their new roles.
The Asian Champions Trophy painted a new picture for Indian hockey, with a surge in field goals and a more distributed scoring burden. Sukhjeet Singh, Karthi Selvam, Gurjant Singh, and Shamsher Singh seamlessly integrated into Fulton's vision, injecting dynamism and increased offensive contributions. Sukhjeet and Karthi, in particular, proved to be a formidable force, consistently earning penalty corners and orchestrating scoring opportunities for their teammates.
Varun and Jugraj have also stepped up in penalty corners, easing the burden on Harmanpreet, who previously stood as the sole expert.
As the Indian men's team faces the challenge in humid Hangzhou, they are prepared for a tough battle. With Fulton's well-devised plan in place, they aim for nothing short of a gold medal, with their eyes set firmly on the larger goal – Paris 2024.
Women's team battle-ready
Similarly, the Indian women's team, ranked 7th in the world, enters the tournament as the top-seeded team. However, their path to glory may not be as smooth. Savita Punia anticipates strong competition from Asian powerhouses like Japan, China, and South Korea.
Since the introduction of women's hockey in the Asian Games in 1982, India has never finished below fourth place, securing six podium finishes. This time, grouped with Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia, the women's team is expected to sail into the semifinals, where the real challenge awaits.
With Olympic qualification at stake, they're leaving no stone unturned in their quest for a top finish in Hangzhou. Savita Punia, one of the world's best goalkeepers, brings invaluable experience against the teams they'll be facing. The national camp ahead of the Asian Games has also honed their fitness, a key focus for coach Janneke Schopman.
Schopman, a former Olympic and World Cup gold medallist from the Netherlands, has already led the Indian women's team to a bronze medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
She was also at the helm when the team clinched the gold medal in the inaugural FIH Nations Cup last year. However, the pressure of competing at the Asian Games, both as a player and coach, is a new challenge she's eager to face. The team carries the weight of expectation, transitioning from underdogs to favourites, a shift in mindset that Schopman believes will be pivotal in their performance.