Olympics 2020 Predictions: Tough, but not impossible for Indian women to create history at Tokyo
It was at Moscow 1980 that the women's field hockey competition was first introduced as an Olympic event - the tournament, however, was bereft of quite of a bit of sheen as the major hockey powers from the Western bloc chose not to participate.
India's Olympic journey - Moscow to Rio and on to Tokyo
Zimbabwe beat Czechoslovakia in the final of the 1980 Games and neither of the two nations has ever been part of the women's Olympic hockey event ever again. The Indian women finished fourth at Moscow and made it to the Rio Games after an agonizing wait of 36 years.
Notwithstanding a 12th place finish in 2016, the eager-to-learn Indian eves made the most of engaging with the best in the business and have since catapulted themselves into a world-beating unit.
Few can dispute the fact that the Indians are in the tougher of the two pools which have been announced for the Tokyo competition - but, should they prevail in a trial by fire in the pool stages they may well fancy their chances of creating history.
No team has dominated the game, in recent times, as the Dutch women have - and, to be drawn alongside the Netherlands can be a nightmarish prospect for any side in the world.
The Indians have, however, got past - or close to - most of the other top teams over the last couple of years, or so, and will fancy their chances should they make it to the quarterfinals.
On the flip side, the Indian girls will not have the benefit of playing the Pro League which will act as a preparatory for rival teams ahead of Tokyo 2020 - how the think tank addresses this particular issue will be interesting to see.
Alongside the Dutch and the Indians, Pool A will feature defending champions Great Britain, 2004 Olympic champions Germany, World Cup silver-medalists and Olympic debutants Ireland, and South Africa.
Three-time Olympic gold-medalists Australia, two-time runners up Argentina, 1992 champions Spain, Beijing 2008 runners-up China, New Zealand, and Japan make up Pool B.
Let's gaze at the crystal ball and attempt to predict where the Indians (WR #9) might finish based on the results in the recent past.
July 25: Netherlands (WR #1) vs India
The Indians have anything but a lung-opener to look forward to against the eight-time World Cup and three-time Olympic champions who have ruled the world of women's hockey ever since achieving the golden triple (Olympics 2012, HWL 2013, and World Cup 2014) with Max Caldas at the helm.
While Caldas has now moved on to the Dutch men's camp, the women he mentored have grown from strength to strength under the tutelage of Alyson Annan and the Indians have a mammoth task on their hands in the opener.
The Netherlands won a mindboggling 15 of their 16 Pro League games last season - this, after brushing aside the opposition en route to winning gold at the 2018 London World Cup.
A strong performance against a side of the calibre of Netherlands will help Sjoerd Marijne's team gear up for the rest of the competition - things can only get better from hereon.
July 27: Germany (WR #4) vs India
While the Germans can be just as lethal as the Dutch on their day, they have not been quite as consistent as their European neighbours, of late.
Germany suffered a shock quarterfinal defeat to Spain at the London World Cup before making it to the Grand Final of the Pro League where they did win the bronze medal after losing to the Dutch in the semifinal.
The vulnerability of the German girls was evident at the Hockey World League at Johannesburg when they drew with the Irish in 2017 before making it to the finals - and the Indians will be targeting the chinks in the armour of Xavier Reckinger's team in the vital high-pressure clash.
While the Germans will, no doubt, begin as the favourites, not many will be shocked if India manages to pick up their first points post the second encounter.
July 29: Great Britain (England WR #5) vs India
Gone are the days when GB blanked the Indians without breaking into much of a sweat as they did during a 3-0 win at Rio 2016 - or, as England did when they beat India by a 4-1 margin at the HWL in 2017.
At the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in 2018, Harendra Singh's team overcame the English by a 2-1 margin in the pool phase but were outplayed 6-0 in the bronze medal match - with five goals being scored in the last 16 minutes of play when India resorted to an all-or-nothing approach.
England was clearly on the back foot, at home, in the World Cup before managing to salvage a draw against the Indians in the opener - and, failed to make it to the semifinals after losing to the Netherlands.
Things turned from bad to worse for a hapless GB side who managed just 3 wins out of 16 in the 2019 Pro League - and, the Tokyo Olympic pool encounter between India and GB could, just about, be anyone's game.
July 31: Ireland (WR #8) vs India
Ranked 16th in the world at the end of 2017, Graham Shaw's Green Army stunned the hockey world with a performance to remember at the London World Cup - breaking Indian hearts in the process.
Despite a 0-1 loss in the pool phase, Indians fans were ecstatic when their team faced Ireland for a second time in London 2018 - this time, in the quarterfinals.
The Indians were on the verge of history but failed to hold their nerve in the shootout - while the Irish advanced to the World Cup final with yet another shootout win over Spain in the semifinal.
Was the giant-killing spree a flash in the pan?
Not really, if one followed the exploits of a side who threatened ever so often on the big stage and will make their Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.
The Indians beat Ireland during a tour match in early 2019 and coach Sjoerd Marijne will be better prepared, this time around, to handle the team which singlehandedly spoilt India's London party.
August 1: South Africa (WR #16) vs India
The Indians have little choice but to pick up full points - and do so with a huge margin against the South Africans if they are to nurture any hopes of making the quarterfinals against a team which lost all their World Cup matches.
Thanks to a late goal from Rani Rampal, the Indians managed a hard-fought 1-0 win over the South Africans at the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast but have improved by leaps and bounds since.
If goal difference does come into the picture to decide the quarterfinal berths- which may well be the case considering how close, at least, four of the teams in the pool are - nothing less than a big win will suffice for the Indians.
Knockouts and beyond?
What are India's chances of making it to the semifinals if they do emerge from the pool of death?
The Aussies know exactly what it's like to take on the new-look Indian team - very nearly being undone by Rani and co. in the semifinals of the CWG a couple of years back where a lone controversial goal helped the Hockeyroos get to the final.
Both China and Japan have been beaten comprehensively by the Indians in the recent past - and World Cup bronze-medalists Spain were put to the test by Marijne's chargers when the Indians visited Madrid in 2019.
The Indian women will tour New Zealand soon to get a measure of how the Pool B side is shaping up. The Black Sticks Women won 6 of their 16 Pro League matches after having lost the World Cup crossover to Argentina.
The Argentinians finished 7th in London 2018 - one slot ahead of India - and ended up fourth in the Pro League. At the very least, the Indians will be expected to perform a lot better than they did at Rio - where they went down to the South Americans by a 0-5 margin.
While the odds are stacked against the ever-resilient Indian girls, teams like Ireland and Spain have displayed by their performances that the women's game has opened up a fair bit - if Marijne's squad dare to walk the extra mile with gusto - Tokyo 2020 may well bring forth the magical moment that women's hockey in India has been long awaiting.
Modified 01 Jan 2020, 15:20 IST