The Indian men's hockey team started the year with the Four-Nations Invitational in New Zealand where a young side beat the hosts and Japan, and fought hard against mighty Belgium. The tour to New Zealand was a preparatory tournament, no doubt, with the Azlan Shah Cup being touted as the first big tournament of the year.
Contrary to expectations, however, an even younger and far less experienced team was sent to Malaysia to test the depths of India's vast pool of talent. India finished fifth but the youngsters showed promise and displayed the ability to challenge the best teams in the world.
Just a couple of days after the conclusion of the Azlan Shah Cup, Hockey India announced the Indian squad for the Commonwealth Games. The intent was clear as only the best players were selected, thus forming a formidable squad, comprising a fearsome and world-class forward-line, an experienced midfield, and a solid defence. Not least, India's ever-dependable custodian, PR Sreejesh is back in the team.
The time for experiments and preparations are over, it seems, and therefore, the Commonwealth Games will indeed be the first big test of the year for the Indian men's hockey team and the coaching staff as well.
Defending champions and hosts Australia are the only team ranked higher than India in the competition, which gets underway a week from now. The Aussies top the FIH rankings while India are in the sixth position and England are placed seventh.
Does that mean silver-medalists India are likely to meet favorites Australia in the final for the third successive time? While Australia's path to the final seems relatively free of any major obstacles, for India, the road may prove to be bumpy.
India find themselves in Pool B alongside England, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Wales.
England looked ominous in Azlan Shah Cup
England are in great form having finished as runners-up at the Azlan Shah Cup last month. In the final against Australia, they gave the world champions a run for their money before losing by a slender 1-2 margin.
India have not had it easy against England (or Great Britain which comprises mainly English players) in the recent past.
England, playing as Great Britain, drew with India with the scoreline reading 2-2 at the Azlan Shah Cup last year. The team from the British Isles beat India 3-2 in the Hockey World League in Bhubaneswar in December in a close game. A young Indian team then held England 1-1 in this year's edition of the Azlan Shah Cup.
Topping the group will be vital for India as a second-place finish in Pool B could lead to a possible clash with Australia in the semi-final.
Resurgent Malaysia may prove tricky
India lost to Malaysia twice last year. The first loss was in the Azlan Shah Cup in 2017 where the hosts beat India 1-0. Far bitter, however, was the loss in the Hockey World League Semi-Final in London. In the quarter-finals, India ranked sixth went down to Malaysia ranked 14th. The shock defeat was the beginning of the end for coach Roelant Oltmans.
Team India will take heart from the fact that since Sjoerd Marijne took over, India has beaten Malaysia twice. The team won gold, beating Malaysia in the Asia Cup in Dhaka last year. Even more heartening was the fact that a second-string Indian side thrashed the hosts 5-1 in the Azlan Shah Cup last month.
Malaysia, coached by Terry Walsh has shown that no team in the world can afford to take them lightly. Olympic champions Argentina will vouch for the fact, as they went down to the hosts in the Azlan Shah Cup.
Pakistan and the Oltmans factor
Pakistan are the only team against whom India had an unblemished record in the recent past with four wins last year. Three of those were with huge margins of 7-1 and 6-1 (in the Hockey World League Final) and 4-0 in the Super 4s of the Asia Cup.
A peek into the past, however, will prove that 2017 has been more of an aberration with Pakistan having a great record against India as the head-to-head statistics clearly show. Out of a total of 171 meetings, Pakistan have won 82 times and India 59.
Pakistan now have Roelant Oltmans as their coach who is no doubt familiar with the Indian set-up. He is largely responsible for India's recent ascent and is therefore is well versed with the subcontinental style of hockey.
It remains to be seen if the Oltmans factor rejuvenates Pakistan, but India will go hard at their old rivals irrespective.
If India do make it to the semi-finals, they are likely to meet Australia or New Zealand. Sjoerd Marijne's men have had the upper hand against New Zealand, having beaten them twice in the Four-Nations Invitational in January this year.
Can India beat Australia?
The million dollar question on the lips of Indian hockey fans is whether we can achieve what looks seemingly impossible. The players, however, answer in the affirmative and do so without batting an eyelid. SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh state defiantly that Australia are just another team and can be beaten for sure.
India had to be satisfied with silver, losing to Australia twice in the Commonwealth Games final. An 8-0 thrashing (in New Delhi) was followed by a 4-0 win in Glasgow 2014 in the last two editions of the competition. Leaving the history aside, however, recent results prove that there is hope.
The transformation happened in 2015, when India beat Australia in a test series hosted Down Under. This was followed by a win against the Aussies in the 2015 Azlan Shah Cup by a 4-2 margin.
The 2016 Champions Trophy final saw an epic encounter with India matching Australia in every department to end regulation time with a goalless deadlock. In a dramatic and controversial shootout, Australia finally prevailed but the Indian team had shown what it was capable of.
The best part about the Azlan Shah Cup experiment is that the Indian coaches have had a chance to closely observe opponents like Australia, England, and Malaysia who will field the same squad for the Commonwealth Games.
The opposition, however, cannot boast of having the same privilege, as the Indian squad bound for Australia has a totally different composition from the one that played in Malaysia. Devising strategies to counter the Indians therefore, will not be easy.
If India do manage to beat Australia in Australia, it will indeed be a historic and path-breaking moment for hockey in the country. Fans can only wait with bated breath to see if Manpreet Singh's boys can indeed strike gold in Gold Coast and take the popularity of the game to a new level in India.