Why India is almost certainly going to win a hockey medal at the Rio Olympics, after 36 long years
It's no surprise that the renewed Indian hockey team has managed to turn quite a few heads in its run-up to the Rio Olympics 2016. Ever since the gold-winning campaign at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, we have been fairly consistent against all the top sides of the world. More specifically, we've held the right attitude that steers us to victories more often now.
The fact that the whole mentality has shifted for the better is all the more evident when we square off against World No. 1 Australia. The players have discovered their self-belief, and they're confident of doing well when they take on the imposing teams. There isn't any mismatch between how different players are going about matters – the whole unit is thinking as one, which is heartening to see.
I stand by the team’s decision to skip the march past at the opening ceremony. The excitement of the festivities could easily distract the team members, particularly the debutants. Besides, with a 10am pushback next morning against Ireland, we don't want them to feel exhausted just before the start of the tournament.
The lack of facilities, however, is a big problem. Representing the nation on the highest platform, you shouldn't have to do all this furniture-moving and complaining. Yes, they need more TVs too, so that they can watch the opponents in action from the village instead of going to the stadium for each game.
Coming to the shape of the current team, the defence has been a revelation. It's amazing how Roelant has turned things around from the woeful scenario during the London 2012 Games, and gotten everyone to rely on the back-line when we're playing. Responsible execution of their respective duties as well as strong man-marking has brought us here. Even Devinder was telling me yesterday that he's come to know of the rivals' fear of our defensive lineup.
Each of our defenders, who double up as drag-flickers, form a vital cog in the wheel. Harmanpreet is deservingly making his Olympic debut and possesses tremendous potential. It's remarkable how he's filling in the shoes of Birendra Lakra, one of the best defenders in the world today, who's out injured. The in-form Rupinder and the veteran Raghunath, with their destructive ability, strengthen our winning chances manifold at Rio.
That brings me to the WALL of INDIA – P. R. Sreejesh, the most important member of the Indian team. He is an asset, the player to watch out for, and is crucial to our medal hopes. As the senior most player in the squad, he's always had a responsibility of leading the team, which he's done very well. He can keep the whole unit together on the field and we need that from him.
In forward, Akashdeep needs to step up and score goals. Sunil has been doing exceptionally well, and can do even better with Akashdeep to support him. Manpreet, hopefully, will continue with the same form. Given how he dictates matters in midfield, he is certainly the next big star of Indian hockey.
The ‘multiple captains’ approach is, in my opinion, a good move. The workload is shared between the seniors and every player will get to understand the value of the armband. And if for some reason, anything goes wrong, Sreejesh won't be as distracted before the following games.
I believe India has a very realistic chance of winning a medal this time. For starters, we should take each game as it comes and try to perform to the best of our capability. Winning the first game is essential as it will show how the body language is at present, and how we are handling the pressure of performing at the biggest tournament.
With their recent Champions Trophy silver, I think the Indian players have raised the expectations and made us believe. And if we succeed in a Top 3 finish, Indian hockey will find its way back to the lost glory, and a lot more. It's imperative that we tackle each and every opponent with the same intensity, preventing the complacency factor from creeping in.
The medals are up for grabs and any team could stake their claim on a given day. The result of our opener against Ireland is of utmost importance. Given how the Irish have improved, a win will work wonders and provide us with the momentum to carry forward to our next fixtures. There's a rest day each before we play the Netherlands and Argentina, which will help the players attain full recovery between matchdays.
I should conclude with a mention of the Indian eves. They have qualified for Olympic women's hockey after 36 years, which is huge in itself. I salute the dedication and hard work that has gone behind securing the Olympic berth. Now, they are a part of the greatest show on earth. The hour has arrived for them to perform, and perform well. I hope they can make their Rio 2016 experience a memorable one.
Making the last eight in this tournament will be a tremendous achievement for the women's team. This could even be the beginning of something extraordinary – maybe a Top 10 ranking and then further ahead into the Top 5. It will be a delightful sight to have them feature in Tokyo 2020 as a reinvigorated unit, chasing their maiden Olympic medal.