Why back-to-back openers can make or break Indian hockey's medal hopes at Tokyo Olympics
Indian hockey team team will face strong opposition- New Zealand and Australia in the first two games at Tokyo Olympics, which will be a decider for India's medal fate
While there is no such thing as an easy outing in a tournament like the Olympics, the advantage of a strong start can barely be overemphasized - and, in India's case - is not just desirable but imperative.
While Olympic-bound hockey outfits from India have traditionally been weighed down by the pressure to recreate the golden history of the past, a string of consistently encouraging performances over the last three years or so has resulted in the expectations being raised manifold this time around.
Given the sequence of the matches that the Indians are slated to play at Tokyo, the two back-to-back openers against New Zealand and Australia could well be the make-or-break contests for the Men in Blue in the preliminary round.
A strong and confident Indian side with points in the bag will have a distinct edge over Argentina and Spain in the matches that follow, as compared to a team attempting to bounce back after a disappointing start.
The advantage of having beaten both Argentina and Spain over the last couple of years - teams that have also not done too well in the recent Hockey Pro League season - could all be lost if the Indians take the field with their backs to the wall.
Inconsistency against New Zealand a big worry
India's record against New Zealand in the recent past has not exactly been music to the ears for the Indian hockey fan, with a series of ups and downs against the Black Sticks Men ever since the Four Nations tournament in early 2018.
A young Indian side comprising debutants Vivek Sagar and Dilpreet Singh beat hosts New Zealand twice in the Blake Park, Tauranga – first via a hard-fought encounter winning 3-2 and then followed by virtue of a commanding 3-1 win.
The ascendancy against the Black Sticks came to naught as the Indians wasted numerous chances in the attacking circle and went down against Darren Smith's boys in the semifinals of the Commonwealth Games.
A loss to New Zealand in the round-robin group stage of the Tokyo test event in 2019 was followed by a 5-0 win in the final match of the tournament.
Indian hockey pundits will vouch for the fact that New Zealand has never been an easy team to beat for the Indians, especially at the Olympic Games over the last couple of decades.
At 2012, in London, the Indians went down by a 1-3 margin to New Zealand in the group stage despite Sandeep Singh giving his side an early lead.
Dhanraj Pillay's equalizer gave his side hope at Athens, but Hayden Shaw's last-minute PC goal knocked the Indians out of contention for a medal in 2004 following the 1-2 loss to New Zealand.
Incidentally, the Indians finished one spot below New Zealand, who were placed seventh, at Rio 2016, and ended up last in 2012 while the Black Sticks were ninth at London.
Things were no different at Athens in 2004 when New Zealand finished higher on the placings ladder - perched one rung above the Indians in the sixth position – which goes to show that the Black Sticks save their best for the Games each time around.
Super Sunday challenge for India
With the vital match against mighty Australia scheduled to be played a day after the New Zealand encounter, the Indians will need to recuperate swiftly ahead of the big fixture on Super Sunday.
Graham Reid will know for certain that a draw against the Aussies would be deemed a creditable result while a win would, of course, be a massive bonus.
With a minimum of four and a possible six points in the first two matches, the Indians can then take the attack to Spain and Argentina - both of whom are unlikely to post as formidable a challenge as the kookaburras.
If, on the other hand, the Indians lose either of their opening games, the mental pressure of a must-win scenario against the Spanish and the defending champions may well bog down the side who love to indulge in the free-flowing forays.
India's recent record against Australia does prove beyond doubt that the Group A encounter between the two hockey giants will be anything but one-sided, but the Indians haven't beaten the Aussies comprehensively either.
A shootout win against Australia in the second leg of the 2020 Hockey Pro League that followed a 3-4 loss in the first leg underlines again the fact that a see-saw contest is on the cards on July 24, but expecting full points is wishful thinking.
Six consecutive podium finishes between 1992 and 2012 go to highlight just how good the Australians have been over the years, and Colin Batch's team would be more than keen to make up for the shock quarterfinal exit at Rio.
Hence, nothing short of a win will suffice for India when the boys take the field against New Zealand, and any opening match jitters will have to be overcome swiftly.
Two Trans-Tasman Hockey Pro League encounters between Australia and New Zealand ended with results in favor of the hosts at Perth and allowed both teams some vital high-quality game time in the last week of June.
With five players in the squad (skipper Blair Tarrant, Shea McAleese, Stephen Jenness, Hugo Inglis, and Steve Edwards) who have more than 200 international caps to their name, New Zealand can boast of a lot more experience in the ranks than India.
Come July 24, Manpreet Singh and co. will be more than aware of the task at hand when they make their way out to the South Pitch of Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo.
A couple of weekend matches have the potential to either bolster India's medal hopes at Tokyo in a big way or dent the dreams badly as eager aficionados count down the clock.