An unprecedented eight Olympic Gold medals is a record that every team is envy of. Even though the last of those eight came way back in 1980 and the former hockey super power has struggled on the synthetic turf, very few teams would dare to underestimate India at the quadrennial event.
In 2008, the game hit its lowest ebb failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics and every Indian would be keen that the team erases the bitter memory with a podium finish. The world ranking of 10 does not give any confidence to the fans, but their recent bronze medal winning performance at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where they defeated Great Britan, ranked fourth, shows that the team still has the ability to beat the top-flight teams.
Being drawn in a strong Group B, alongside Germany, Netherlands, Korea, New Zealand and Belgium it is going to be different ball game together. Chief coach Michael Nobbs will have a tough job to iron out the flaws and live up to the expectations of the 1.2 billion people.
Here is a look at the strengths and weaknesses after the team’s performance in Malaysia as most of the players are likely to represent the nation at the Olympics.
Goalkeepers: Bharat Chetri (captain), Sreejesh P.R
There has been a tremendous improvement in the skipper’s performance in the recent times. For long, Chetri had been accused of failing to live up to the expectations but he has made it a habit to lead the squad from the front. Throughout the build-up for the Olympics he has been in fine form and his performance under the bar will be crucial. On the other hand, Sreejesh has been a worthy stand by, but lacks consistency. On a few occasions he comes up with brilliant saves, but his performances have been botched by a few silly errors at times.
Defenders: Sandeep Singh, V.R. Raghunath, Rupinder Pal Singh
Can be considered as a group of match-winners, but are the weakest link at the same time and has surely given some headache to the coach. All are three drag-flickers have a key role to play when it comes to penalty corners, but it is where their usefulness ends. In the defence they are found wonting at times, especially Sandeep and Raghunath who slow across the turf. It is due to this team was flat footed against some good counter attacking teams and when the opposition mid-field was in an attacking mode.
Midfielders: Birendra Lakra, Sardar Singh (vice-captain), Manpreet Singh, Gurbaj Singh, Kothajit Singh Khadangbam
It has a good mix of experience and youth. But a weak defence means that they spend most of their time in supporting them and has crippled their ability to create scoring chances for their strikers. Even though Sardar has performed well in the role of withdrawn mid-fielder, he is more effective when building an attack and enjoys his role as a key play-maker. While Sardar along with Lakra and Gurbaj are one of the most experienced in the team, Manpreet and Kothajit bring in the fresh blood into the team. Off the two, Kothajit in particular is nimble footed with good ball control can wreck havoc in the left-half, a crucial position. But for this they should be allowed to move up from the defence and the return of Yuvraj Walmiki from hamstring injury will only bolster the department.
Forwards: S.V. Sunil, Dharamvir Singh, Sarvanjit Singh, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Shivendra Singh, Danish Mujtaba, S.K. Uthappa, Tushar Khandker
The Indian forward line is at its best when on attack and the infusion of young blood has increased seen an increase in pace. Even though they have consistently penetrated into the opposition striking area, they have struggled to convert the chances. While Sunil has been outstanding ever since his return from knee injury, he has struggled to receive good support from others, who struggled to match his speed. Sunil with his deceptive stick work is electric on the field creating numerous chances along the right flank. He’s already made his mark and will surely be one of the most marked players in the Indian team.
To some extent, Shivendra Singh and S.K. Uthappa have troubled the opposition, but haven’t looked threatening consistently. This is because the mid-fielders are withdrawn and the strikers have to create chances on their own and has thus taken the sting out of the attack. But a weak defence means the strikers have to even convert the half chances that come their way.
On hindsight, no team is without its weaknesses. But it is those who have the ability to build on their strengths and minimize their mistakes manage to emerge victorious.