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Plenty to look forward to from the Indian hockey team at the World Cup

Players at a practise session

It's been 39 years since India won their only hockey World Cup. After that they have never come anywhere near a podium finish, let alone winning.

India were third in the inaugural edition in 1971, runners-up in the next edition before winning the Cup in Kuala Lumpur when the tournament was played biennially. After it became quadrennial in 1978, India's best finish came in 1982 and then 1994. From then on,they were making up the 9-12 numbers and in 2010 they ended up eighth.

Recently Hockey India (HI) felicitated 13 living members of the 1975 team, led by Ajit Pal Singh - and anecdotes flowed like wine. The felicitation was followed by the announcement of the 18-member squad for the Hague World Cup to be held from May 31-June 15. Separated by three generations, the two teams epitomised the stark realities of Indian hockey.

The fact that we are still celebrating the 39th year of the 1975 World Cup also tells the sorry state of Indian hockey. Two gentleman - Roelant Oltmans, high performance director, and chief coach Terry Walsh - who witnessed the event, must have wondered whether such a thing would have happened in their countries.

Oltmans, a Dutchman, and Walsh, an Australian, are the ones who have the responsibility to bring back the heydays of Indian hockey. They come from countries that dominated world hockey ever since India's decline.

Oltmans-Walsh is easily the best coaching combination India have had in recent years. It is not going to be easy, but the two have the experience and the calibre to pull Indian hockey out of a morass.

The road to recovery has just started, but making a podium finish may not be a realistic assessment. They have done well to climb up to the eighth place in the world rankings after wallowing in double-digits for a long time. Things can only get better from here on.

The squad for the World Cup shows quite a few changes from the one that finished last at the 2012 London Olympics, though the nucleus has been retained. Fresh faces offer new hope, but the problem is that of consistency.

P.R.Sreejesh, Gurbaj Singh, V.R.Raghunath, Birendra Lakra, Kothajit Singh, Sardar Singh, S.K.Uthappa, Dharamvir Singh, Manpreet Singh and S.V.Sunil, survived the London crash to bring in the much needed experience to the side. Add the exuberance of youthful Ramandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Nikin Thimmaih and Mandeep Singh and the mix is perfect.

India are in tough Group A with defending champions Australia, England, Spain, Malaysia and the rapidly improving Belgium. The Indians have their task cut out. The first match against World No.5 Belgium will be crucial since a good start can give the eight-time Olympic champions a big chance and much needed hope.

There was a time when the Belgians were far below the Indians, but in the last three or four years they have made quick progress and have established themselves as the team to watch out for in the tournament. And a good showing against the vastly improved team in world hockey would certainly inspire the Indians for bigger things in the tournament.

As Walsh keeps saying, India will take a top eight finish, but a fifth position can change the face of Indian hockey. Realistically, it is asking too much from a side just beginning to show some spark.

(Abhishek Roy is a Principal Correspondent with IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at abhishek.roy@ians.in)

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