A resurgent Indian hockey team, with its penetrative attack and solid defence, can actually challenge for the top spot in the Champions Trophy
My earliest memories of the Champions Trophy are from the 2003 tournament. It was an era in world hockey when Sohail Abbas and Taeke Taekema were drag flick kings, Teun De Nooijer was terrorising opposition defenders at will, a young talented man called Arjun Halappa was being compared to the great Mohammed Shahid as the next big thing in Indian hockey and a certain Dhanraj Pillay still had the pace to burst his way past defenders.
In the second match of the tournament in Amstelveen, India played the hosts, the Netherlands. After leading 3-0 for 62 minutes, India astonishingly imploded, squandering the lead in a matter of seven minutes. The Dutch ran out 4-3 winners in the end.
My childhood was speckled with images of Sachin Tendulkar obliterating the Australian bowling attack in Sharjah and Anil Kumble running through a dazed Pakistani batting line-up on a murky December afternoon at Delhi's Ferozshah Kotla. Hockey was never an attraction. But the 2003 Champions Trophy changed all that.
Eleven years later, the attraction beckons again as a hopeful India takes on the world in the latest edition of the Champions Trophy. The event gets under way today at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. India will look to improve on their fourth place finish in Melbourne two years ago. In 2012, India topped their group and defeated Belgium in the quarter finals, before being beaten by Pakistan - much like 2003 - in the play-off for third place.
The last couple of months have seen a massive upswing in the fortunes of Indian hockey. A silver medal in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games was followed by a historic gold medal at the Asian Games in Incheon, before India stunned the hockey world with a 3-1 series win over world champions Australia Down Under. According to former India captain Viren Rasquinha, this is India's best chance to win the Champions Trophy in a very long time. "The Indian team has been playing excellent hockey. And with home support on its side, winning the tournament is a possibility," he says.
Australian skipper Eddie Ockenden said earlier this week that the Indian team has a good chance of going all the way. Drawn in a group that also includes Argentina, six-time champions the Netherlands and Germany, India would be desperate to prove Ockenden right. India have never won the Champions Trophy since the tournament's inception in 1978 - their best performance being a bronze medal in Amstelveen in 1982.
India, at least on paper, have the right mix of youth and experience in their ranks. The surge in the last few months has been fuelled by the team's by talismanic captain, Sardar Singh. One of the finest midfielders in the game today, Singh's creativity and ball feeding will hold the key to India's chances. While the forward line comprising S V Sunil, Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh will be expected to bang in the goals, matches in the big tournaments are often won through resolute defending. Defenders Rupinder Pal Singh, V R Ragunath, along with goalkeeper P Sreejesh, will, therefore, play a pivotal role in keeping attacks at bay. "The biggest advantage for India is stability," says Rasquinha. "The core of India's team has remained the same for the last 2-3 years. There have been no major changes. That is one of the major ingredients for doing well." Sreejesh, who has been phenomenal in goal over the course of last year, has become one of the vital cogs in the Indian squad.
While the first group is expected to go down to the wire, the other group is also a tough one to call. Australia, Belgium, Pakistan and England are pooled together, with all of them in with a good chance of progressing. Australia, still reeling from that shock series loss to India, have come to Bhubaneswar with a relatively inexperienced team - captain Mark Knowles, forward Jamie Dwyer and Kieren Govers are all recuperating from injuries. Led by 27-year-old Ockenden, who has been an integral part of the Kookaburas' various title-winning sides over the last few years, Australia, in spite of being light in some departments, will still pose a serious challenge. "Traditionally Australia has always been an ultra-competitive side. They always fight. This time will be no different," says Rasquinha. A lot will ride on Ockenden's ability to get the best out of his young players. The Tasmanian is a highly skilled player who can operate both as a midfielder and in a role upfront. Graham Reid's side will depend heavily on the prolific Russell Ford in front of goal - he is also making his way back from injury - and drag flick specialist Chris Ciriello.
Belgium, an unknown hockey entity till a few years ago, may prove the real surprise package in this year's tournament. Ever since the tiny nation's surprise win in the Champions Challenge in 2011, Belgian hockey has made a rapid ascent. "Belgium are no longer pushovers," says Rasquinha.
Pakistan - the last Asian team to win this event in 1994 - head to Bhubaneswar with few expectations. They too are fielding a side devoid of much experience, and would do well to get past the quarter-finals. While the Netherlands, Australia and Germany will start as the obvious front runners for the crown, teams like Belgium and England have the potential to upset the apple cart. However, the biggest challenge for the European nations would be to get themselves acclimatised to the sultry weather in Bhubaneswar.
With Terry Walsh parting ways with the team, its now up to new coach and High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans to take the side forward. Experts rate Oltmans as one of the top three coaches in the world. Hopefully, he will come up with something special in Bhubaneswar.