There is a guarded sense of optimism whenever Indian hockey achieves some success. The Asia Cup triumph in 2007 was closely followed by the gutting defeat in the Olympics qualifiers in Santiago in 2008, the first and only time thus far where the eight-time Olympic gold-medallists didn’t feature in the quadrennial gala. Every triumph comes tinged with nervousness. That is why, even as an understandable wave of hope has swept the hockey fraternity in the wake of India’s Asian Champions Trophy triumph, scepticism lurks in the background.
But while only sustained performances in the coming months can tell us whether Indian hockey is turning around, there is discernible progress. Reaching the Olympic quarterfinals was significant, and winning the Asian Champions Trophy, though India was the top seed, is also a credible accomplishment. It suggests that there is a sufficient degree of continuity in terms of results under Roelant Oltmans, who took charge as the technical director but is now the head coach.
Critical to this string of promising returns is a sense of togetherness, forged and fostered by Oltmans. There doesn’t seem to be the usual litany of backbiting and bristling in the team, and under him several youngsters have begun to come of age — for example, Affan Yousuf and Nikkin Thimmaiah, both goal-scorers in the final. Affan first served notice of his potential in the FIH-unsanctioned World Series Hockey, before he became a Hockey India League regular. In the Asian Champions Trophy, the left-winger was a revelation, not only making surging runs on the flanks but also chipping in with vital goals. Likewise, the hitherto profligate Thimmaiah has become more clinical. So has been Ramandeep Singh — his sporadic bursts of dynamism replaced with controlled aggression. Even a senior like Sardar Singh, after a forgettable Olympics, has rekindled his speed and solidity. Drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh has added variations to his usual strokes and India have unearthed a fitting apprentice to P.R. Sreejesh — Akash Chikte. With a young and ambitious nucleus, Oltmans and the Indian hockey fraternity can hope this isn’t another false dawn.