At the London Olympics, the Lee Valley hockey park was a depressing venue for most of India’s travelling journalists to cover. It was where the Indian team remarkably disintegrated – the players’ infighting resulting in the team’s worst-ever Olympic performance. Four years on, it is ironical that the site of India’s Olympic nightmare has turned into a realm of hope.
Later tonight, India will take on world champions Australia in the final of the Champions Trophy. It’s been a mixed tournament for the boys in blue. They beat hosts Britain and Asian rivals South Korea, held reigning Olympic champions Germany to a draw but also lost to Belgium and Australia. Eventually, a pulsating 3-3 draw between Britain and Belgium on Thursday night ensured India finished second in the round robin stage, which paved the way for its first-ever appearance in the final of Champions Trophy.
While it is a major step forward for Indian hockey, it is necessary to hold the horses. For most teams, including India, the Champions Trophy this year was more of a hindrance. The tournament is being held merely 50 days before the Olympics and most of the teams have rested some of their key players. Even India have given break to a few important members of the team, including captain Sardar Singh, striker Ramandeep Singh and drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh. The teams have also held their cards close to the chest, not willing to give away much so close to the Games. So it’s unfair to judge India’s competitors based on this tournament.
From India’s point of view, the performance is at best reassuring that the team is continuing to progress in the right direction. Since winning the Asian Games gold two years ago, India has shown signs of improvements and an appearance in the final of a major international tournament just before the Olympics will do a world of good to players’ confidence. At the same time, there has been a tendency to go overboard with celebrations which the players need to be cautious about.
Since he has taken charge, Oltmans has done one thing remarkably well – to temper down expectations from this young lot. It has taken pressure off the players and has given them the confidence to play freely, which is reflected in the manner in which they’ve played. As the expectations go sky-high following the team’s performance at the Champions Trophy, Oltmans will have to ensure the success does not go to their head. Whatever the result tonight against Australia, it should not deviate the team’s focus from preparations for the Rio Olympics.