Aiming to gain in confidence before the Olympic Games, the Indian hockey team will be eyeing a podium finish in the Champions Trophy, beginning with a clash against Olympic gold-medallists Germany on Friday.
Launching their campaign at the Lee Valley Hockey Centre, India are seeking to add to their only Champions Trophy medal — a bronze — they won at Amsterdam in 1982.
On seven occasions thereafter, India have been edged away from the podium as they lost crucial bronze-medal encounters.
The last two Champions Trophy events in 2012 (Melbourne) and 2014 (Bhubaneswar) feature among the seven fourth-place finishes that left the Indian fans dejected.
“A podium finish is a realistic target we’re chasing here at this Champions Trophy,” said coach Roelant Oltmans as the Indian team went through its training regimen ahead of the German encounter.
“A medal here will be a big confidence-booster ahead of the Olympic Games,” said Oltmans. “Rio de Janeiro is our main focus this summer and good results on the way will surely lift the team’s morale.”
Returning to the Olympic Park in London also provides India a chance to erase the unhappy memories of the last-place finish in the 2012 Olympics. Before that Indian hockey used to romance the 1948 Olympic gold medal they had won in London.
“We like a challenge, but we have to execute our tactics in match situations and keep evolving,” said Oltmans, who has continued his rotational policy to provide exposure to all players ahead of picking the squad for Rio de Janeiro.
Starting with the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where India got the silver behind world champions Australia, Oltmans is eager to test his junior players in stiff contests. To do so, he has had to create space by shuffling the senior players in the squad.
Custodian PR Sreejesh, who will captain the squad at the Champions Trophy, and penalty corner shooter VR Raghunath are back in the squad after missing the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, while Sardar Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh have been rested.
Young penalty corner shooter Harmanpreet Singh’s fine show in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup secured his selection for the Champions Trophy, where he will share the duties with Raghunath.
For goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya and his junior colleague Pradeep Mor this is the biggest stage of their short playing career.
It is a huge step up for Dahiya, who recently played under the bar at the South Asian Games in Guwahati, while Mor will get a dream opportunity to showcase his skills.
“We’ll need to play our best hockey to get good results and aspire for a medal,” said Oltmans.
Some other teams are also fielding a lot of youngsters, but only a very good show can earn us victories over teams ranked above us,” he said.
World No. 1 Australia, third-ranked Germany, No.4 Great Britain and fifth-placed Belgium are all ranked above India, currently at the seventh spot in the International Hockey Federation (FIH) standings.
Australia’s 13 gold medals make them the most successful nation in Champions Trophy history, way ahead of eight golds for nearest rivals The Netherlands, who have decided not to field a team this year to prepare for the Olympics.
The Indian team had grown in confidence after the bronze medal in the World League Finals at Raipur six months ago. It was the first podium place in a global event in more than three decades for the erstwhile world champions.
There are just two more Champions Trophy competitions left for India to overcome the enduring tinge of sadness at not having won more medals.
Started as the showpiece annual tournament, the Champions Trophy will be discontinued after 2018 as the FIH is planning to introduce a new global league.
This edition of the Champions Trophy returns to the old format of six teams competing in round-robins and the top two teams advancing to the final.
The third and fourth placed teams in the round-robin league will play-off for the bronze medal.
India’s round-robin league fixtures: India vs Germany (June 10), India vs Great Britain (June 11), India vs Belgium (June 13), India vs South Korea (June 14), India vs Australia (June 16).