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India can finish among top eight at Hockey World Cup

Indian hockey team practise session

India are among the five countries to have won the hockey World Cup. And curiously, they are the only country not to have won it a second time in its 43 years' history. Pakistan have won it four times, the Netherlands thrice ,Germany and Australia have won it on two occasions.

The record is certainly depressing for a country that still wears the tag of the most successful team in the Olympics, having won the gold medal eight times and remains the team with the longest unbeaten run, from 1928 to 1956, when their skills of players from the subcontinent on natural grass were simply mesmerising.

Alas, it is becoming increasingly difficult for India and Pakistan to hold their own in the elite company dominated by the European powerhouses the Netherlands,Germany and Australia.

If India failed to make it to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Pakistan could not qualify for the World Cup, which got underway at The Hague, Saturday, clearly signifying that the two Asian giants are no longer automatic choices for majors. Teams like New Zealand, Argentina and Belgium are making rapid strides with Spain, Britain and Korea looking solid.

India, who have been languishing in double-digit rankings, have forced their way back to be eighth on the roaster, prompting their chief coach Terry Walsh to say that India look good to finish in the top eight at The Hague and a sixth position would be outstanding. His Australian team captain Mark Knowles sees India as a top-six team.

A top-eight finish is a realistic assessment even if the sixth position appears highly optimistic. But by pulling off a good win and an upset elsewhere to help them, they can turn the standings upside down.

Not many will go along with the two Australians as India finished in the top six only thrice - sixth in 1978 and fifth in 1982 and 1994 -- after winning the Cup in 1975.

In 1994, the team was coached by Zafar Iqbal for the Hiroshima Asian Games and he was sacked for losing the final to South Korea 2-3. He came to know of it while checking in at the Fukuoka airport.

Frankly, the Indian team's decline began once they started losing to teams like Argentina, New Zealand, Korea, England and Malaysia in key games.

Belgium have won three of the last four games against India and many treat them as the dark  horses even to win the cup!

Any team with speed can rattle India. This has somewhat been corrected in recent years with their fitness levels improving. Strangely, India is doing well in bilateral series in Europe, raising hopes before Olympics and the World Cup. But when they run into the same teams at major championships,they look a hopeless lot and this is not very difficult to explain.

Coming to the Hague World Cup, India are clubbed with defending champions Australia, Spain, Belgium, England and Malaysia in Group A, while Group B has Olympic gold medalists Germany, hosts the Netherlands, Argentina, New Zealand, South Korea and South Africa.

Clearly, the best of international hockey barring the unfortunate exception of Pakistan is there. And one look at India’s head to head record against all the teams will give an idea as to how some of the teams have overtaken the once formidable side.

Some might dismiss the rise of some of the teams as cyclical in sport, but then India now have their best chance to disprove that. Never in recent years had the Indians look so well prepared with the right kind of support staff to back them.

One cannot blame the coaching staff with people like Terry Walsh and renowned Dutch coach Roelant Oltman around.

The Indian team has a new look with only four players from the last World Cup, playing in the Hague.

Just when the team was getting acclimatised and looking well drilled, strikers Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah had to drop out with injuries.

They were quickly replaced by Lalit Upadhyaya and Yuvraj Walmiki.

Eventually, it all boils down to the start the Indians get. They were able to finish eighth in Delhi thanks to their now routine victories over Pakistan.

They now need to do much better if they are fancying a top six finish. Hopefully, the team's think-tank has taken adequate care of it.


(Veturi Srivatsa is Sports Editor at IANS and the above views are expressed are his own. He can be contacted at v.srivatsa@ians.in)

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