90 years after their official debut at Amsterdam 1928 and 8 years after the Youth Olympics was first contested at Singapore, the Indian hockey team is now making their debut at the coveted platform of the Youth Olympics for the first time, in not one but both the editions, whether boys or girls.
Following their explosive success at the Junior Asia Cup [Under 18], which also served as the qualifiers for the Youth Olympics at the Asian level, the two Indian hockey teams will now vie for a promising stint at Buenos Aires from 7 to 14 October 2018 at the Parque Poliderportivo Roca, the venue for the field hockey event at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympics 2018.
Format: Can India adapt to the new standards?
The game that the Indian teams shall play is not the standard hockey that we see, but a rather compact, accelerated version of the same. Neither the game will be played on the traditional green turf, nor will it be an exhausting affair of 70 minutes.
Hockey 5s is basically the T 20 format of the field hockey. On a court shorter than the standard one, the two teams will vie for victory in three-quarters of fifteen minutes, instead of the normal four quarters. The playing surface is the same blue turf and the two teams shall play with the same yellow ball as used in international field hockey.
So the question persists: Can India adapt to the new standards? Definitely. Not many know this, or would love to accept, but ever since the game was switched to a more concise format, with quarter based games on a blue turf, the Indian hockey teams have benefited the most.
No more the weaklings they were in the 90s and the early 2000s, they've hardly been eliminated in the group stages. Besides, the Indian team has just made the cut for the Youth Olympics on this very surface.
The competition: Can India breach the barrier whenever their senior compatriots fail?
It is no rocket science to know how good India is in field hockey. Once the invincible masters of the game till Mexico Olympics 1968, political intervention, followed by reluctance to reignite the killer instinct and adapt to any format reduced India to a laughing stock by the time London Olympics 2012 had come to a close.
Another thing that the Indians have not been yet to overcome is their semifinal phobia for the Olympics. Despite being amongst the frontrunners for a shock medal after 36 years, the Indian team squandered a well-earned lead from the first half to Belgium, losing the match and ultimately the Olympic medal in the quarterfinals.
Ironically, Belgium went on to the finals, only to lose to a team that was royally whacked by India in the preliminaries by 1-2, i.e. Argentina. So it becomes important to know if India can overcome such anxieties of the senior level and recreate the magic of FIH Junior Hockey World Cup 2016, whether in the boys or even the girls?
The competition format for the 12 teams is almost the same as that of the Rio Olympics. Six teams in each pool will compete against each other, following which the top four teams from each team shall make the cut for the quarterfinals.
India is curiously placed in a tough group, with the defending champions Australia. However, in order to make the cut to the quarterfinals, India just needs to win a minimum of two matches, and at least hold 1 team minimum to a draw, which doesn't look that uphill a task when teams like Bangladesh, Kenya, Austria etc. are up.
Even though Canada won a silver medal in the previous edition, they did on so on account of the absence of tough teams, and it will surely not be a cakewalk for this team when they meet the Indians. The women's team have it much easier, with only the Argentine team being a tough competition for them.
Can India bring gold?
So even now, one question persists: Can India strike gold on debut? Though it's easier than done, one forgets that the Indian teams have coaches who were the masters of this game in their own days. Sadly, neither Jude Felix Sebastian nor Baljeet Singh Saini, the coaches of their respective teams, could add that one medal of glory to their kitty, i.e. the Olympic medal.
So this is just not a golden opportunity for India to work wonders, this is also the first ever chance for these two to give to their nation the medal they couldn't achieve themselves at the senior level. Besides, Jude Felix is absolutely on par with his predecessor, the legendary coach Harendra Singh who led India to a magnificent Junior Hockey World Cup in 2016. It won't be a surprise if India romps home with a gold medal on debut.
For Baljeet Singh Saini, this is a golden opportunity to match his level with the senior coach Sjoerd Marijne, who has worked for the Indian eves ever since he rejoined the team following the CWG fiasco. If all goes well, India might as well script history of an unprecedented level.