India, then a colony under Great Britain, had decided to field a team in field hockey in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics for the first time. In their preparation for the Olympic Games, they played several leading clubs of London and beat them before facing the England national hockey team. In fear of losing to a colony at the Olympic stage, the defending champions Great Britain decided to withdraw from the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Such stories bear the testament of India's reign over world hockey, which lasted for six decades.
A total of 11 medals, including eight gold, two silver, and a bronze, sums up the sheer dominance India has enjoyed in hockey led by legends like Dhyan Chand, Balbir Singh Jr., and Udham Singh, among others. Four decades have passed since India brought its last Olympic medal home — a gold at the 1980 Games in Moscow. Could this be the year that ends the men in blues' 41-year old drought?
The renewed vigour in the Indian team
The Indian men's hockey team is ranked fourth globally and has shown promise in the last couple of years in their run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. The resurgence of the hockey team started probably after the conclusion of the Hockey World Cup in home in 2018. Undoubtedly, the Indian team has gained a renewed vigour since the arrival of coach Graham Reid, the craftsman who is now entrusted to take the team to new heights. If someone makes a report card for Reid, he has passed with flying colours. If you go by the numbers, since Reid's appointment, India has played 37 international matches, where they have won 27, lost five and drew five matches so far.
Despite a season marred by the coronavirus, the team has shown immense resilience playing with the other top teams in the world.
India, whose strategy had always relied upon attack, under the tenure of last few coaches, had started focussing on its defensive solidity. The attacking move started to look frail, where they were just trying to recycle the possession in midfield if there were no clear forward passes in play. Immediately after the Australian's appointment, the emphasis shifted towards playing pressing hockey. The number of forward passes, lightning-quick transitions in the middle-third of the turf, enabled by moving the ball quickly in the opposition 'D', have reaped dividends, which acted as fundamental for India in their victory against Netherlands and Belgium.
Success in the run-up to Tokyo Olympics
There weren't any major tournaments lined up for the Indian teams in 2019 and they mostly competed in bilateral series and one-off International Hockey Federation (FIH) events. In the FIH Series Finals in June, the Manpreet Singh-led side left no stone unturned and emerged victorious by thrashing South Africa 5-1 in the final to qualify for the FIH Olympic Qualifiers. The team then participated in the Tokyo Olympics test event in August involving hosts Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand. The Indian men again came out victorious, defeating the Black Sticks 5-0 in the summit clash.
Followed by Japan, the men in blue went on an exposure tour to Belgium to play five matches -- three against reigning world champions Belgium and two against Spain. Here the coach introduced a new overseas training feature where the Indian team trained with the Dutch -- a completely new concept for captain Manpreet Singh and his boys. The Manpreet-led side passed with flying colours beating Belgium 2-0, 2-1 and 5-1 and then vanquished Spain 6-1 and 5-1.
But the biggest test awaited them in the year-ending final round of Olympic Qualifiers where the team enjoyed a relatively easy outing, handing Russia an 11-3 drubbing on aggregate to seal their Tokyo tickets.
The roster for the year 2020 started with the much-awaited FIH Pro League. India opened their campaign against World no. 3 Netherlands. The Manpreet Singh brigade oozed confidence with 5-2 victory in the first leg followed by another win in the shootouts. Their biggest challenge was waiting in the month of February 2020, where they faced World Champions Belgium and top-ranked Australia. Our men gave the teams a run for the money, winning one leg against each of them.
Followed by the prolonged gap owing to coronavirus, the Indian team returned to action in February this year with a tour against world no. 5 and 6 Germany and England, respectively. India posted an emphatic 6-1 win over Germany in the opening match followed by a 1-1 draw. Similar results were achieved against England with a 1-1 draw and a 3-2 victory. The last time India took the field was during the resumption of the FIH Pro League against Argentina, ranked seventh in the world. India won both their matches against the host in Buenos Aires with satisfying results in the practice games.
After playing all the top seven teams in the last year, India has been dubbed as one of the major challengers for the podium finish in the Tokyo Olympics. Graham Reid's boys displayed without a shadow of a doubt that the wins against the Dutch, Australian, and Argentinians were no flash in the pan and that the team is clicking as a whole.
The team will not be playing any other tournament before the Games and is probably looking forward to playing a few practice matches in Tokyo before the Olympics begin. And going forward like this makes nothing seem impossible. The aggressive and cohesive Indian squad, which has been impressive throughout the past couple of years, can pull off the biggest surprise package at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for the podium finish, where it counts the most.