Hockey fever is in the air in India as the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023, to be held in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, is all set to be played from January 13 to 29.
The hosts have been drawn alongside 1986 World Cup silver-medalists England and two-time silver-medalists Spain, who clinched second place in 1971 and 1998. The Spaniards also won the bronze medal in 2006.
World Cup debutants Wales will be the fourth team to feature in Pool D.
The Indians won a bronze medal at the inaugural World Cup in 1971 before going down to hosts, the Netherlands, on penalty strokes in the 1973 final. The silver in Amstelveen was followed by a historic gold in 1975 when they got the better of arch-rivals Pakistan.
Ashok Kumar, son of the legendary Dhyan Chand, recorded the decisive strike in that match.
The World Cup became a quadrennial event from 1978 onwards. The Men in Blue have failed to make it to the podium or advance to the semi-finals stage ever since their golden run in Kuala Lumpur.
Coach Harendra Singh's boys were the first Indian team to get past the group stage and into the knockouts courtesy of a quarter final format being introduced in 2018.
The Manpreet Singh-led side lost to the Netherlands in the last eight to exit the tournament's most recent edition four years ago. The result was a disappointment to the massive crowd at the Kalinga Stadium, which cheered the home team on until the very end during the quarter-final clash.
The Indians will have yet another chance to redeem themselves in front of their passionate fans in Bhubaneswar in a few months' time. The Birsa-Munda International Hockey Stadium in Rourkela is also gearing up to host matches in January.
Can the Indian men's hockey team create World Cup history this time round?
The pressure of expectations following the bronze-medal triumph at the Tokyo Olympics continues to weigh heavily on Graham Reid's boys. While performances will obviously matter, it is worth noting that a plethora of exciting new talent has continued to rise through the ranks in the aftermath of that run.
The incredible pool of talent even helped the team secure a silver medal at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Considering the cross-over format, the Indians will be looking to top Pool D, which will ensure direct entry into the quarter-finals. As it happens, the Men in Blue had both England and Wales in their Pool during CWG 2022.
India looked to be coasting to victory in their group match against England with a scoreline that read 4-1 a minute into the final quarter. They led courtesy of goals from Lalit Upadhayay (third minute), Mandeep Singh (13th and 22nd) and Harmanpreet Singh (46th).
Quite inexplicably, however, India conceded three goals in the space of six minutes. A couple of yellow cards followed in quick succession to put them under the cosh for the final stretch of the contest.
They were ultimately lucky to come away with a 4-4 draw with the English strikers wreaking havoc in the striking circle in the final minutes.
England's Nicholas Bandurak, who ended up as the highest scorer in Birmingham with 11 goals, could prove to be a handful for any side. The dangerous man-in-the-mask Sam Ward and the redoubtable Liam Ansell have also shown what they are capable of on many a big stage.
Bandurak, who scored a brace against the Indians at Birmingham, did so in Bhubaneswar as well. Sam Ward's last-minute penalty stroke then allowed the English side to hold the hosts to a 3-3 draw in the first leg of the FIH Hockey Pro League earlier this year.
The Indians did win the second leg of their Pro League game 4-3. However, they will be worried by the manner in which England managed to peg back the mighty Australians earlier this year.
The English team took an early 2-0 lead in the semi-finals of the Commonwealth Games against the Kookaburras. The close contest, which the Aussies finally won by a 3-2 margin, was in stark contrast to the manner in which Manpreet and Co. capitulated against the Aussies.
They were thoroughly outclassed and suffered a humiliating 0-7 defeat in the CWG 2022 final as the Australians ran riot.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Red Sticks finished seventh in the Hockey Pro League, winning five of their 16 encounters. They fought hard against the Indians before going down 4-5 at the Kalinga Stadium.
Max Caldas, who was the FIH's Coach of the Year in 2014 is attempting to build a young Spanish side. Though the Red Sticks went down against the Indians by a 3-5 margin in the second leg, the Argentinian can be counted upon to deliver the goods when it matters most.
A hat-trick from Harmanpreet Singh helped the Indians sink Wales 4-1 in Birmingham. However, the Welsh side finished a creditable sixth ahead of Pakistan and Canada, which speaks volumes of their recent prowess.
A heavy defeat against Australia in the final of the 2022 Commonwealth Games would not have done any good to the confidence of the young Indian side. They will be expected to bounce back and look to beat their opponents at the World Cup next year.
However, it will not be easy as England, Spain, and Wales can cause Graham Reid's troops some problems. They will also be playing a reduced number of games prior to the World Cup.
The upcoming edition of the Hockey Pro League will witness India taking on only New Zealand and Spain ahead of the quadrennial tournament. The rest of their matches are scheduled from March 2023 onwards.
Regardless, they will enjoy a distinct home advantage and renewed belief following their coveted Olympic bronze. Reid's side will be well aware that a semi-final place is within their reach.
However, the hosts' margin for error remains scant, especially in the early stages. They will need to stay focused and on their A-game throughout if they are to get the better of Spain and England, two teams who have tested their resolve previously.