They are not here. But India can’t seem to stop talking about Pakistan. Partly in awe, partly as a warning. The Green Shirts’ spunky show against the Netherlands in the Olympic qualifiers last weekend has been the talk of the hockey world. For India, it was a lesson in avoiding complacency.
Not just Pakistan, in fact. France too featured heavily in coach Graham Reid’s team meeting as he pressed upon the team to shrug off its habit of underestimating lower-ranked teams, as India take on Russia in a two-match Tokyo 2020 qualifier.
“We had a meeting after those games (Netherlands-Pakistan and Spain-France) and what was really good is that we’ve been talking about exactly those things… When you don’t start well and when you don’t follow the game plan early,” Reid says.
Russia, ranked 22, have never qualified for an Olympics or the World Cup. To say that they are a nation with no hockey pedigree would be slightly misleading. The erstwhile USSR was one of the most dominant European teams in the 1980s, managing podium finishes at the 1980 Olympics and European Championships.
The break-up of the Soviet Union spelt the end of hockey in the region and Russia has never come close to achieving anything major. “We don’t have any money. Ice hockey has 4,000 times more funding than we do,” team manager Arkadii Kondratev says.
This week, Kondratev adds, will be historic for the team because both the matches will be shown live on TV back home. Unfortunately for them, if past results are anything to go by, the Russians are likely to witness a thrashing.
When the two teams met in the first round of Olympic qualifiers – the FIH Series Finals – four months ago at the Kalinga Stadium, which will host Friday’s match as well, India won 10-0. The only previous occasion they faced each other was at the 2008 Olympic qualifiers and back then, India thumped Russia 8-0.
India have so far refrained from making statements that can remotely be construed as overconfident. There’s an air of confidence around the team of getting the job done but there’s also a hint of cautiousness, with Reid reminding them at every opportunity to not get ahead of themselves. “My message has been pretty much the same ever since I have joined the team. Always treat everyone with respect, like you are playing the best in the world,” he says.
Complacency, in the first place, is the reason why India find themselves in the qualifiers. India were so sure of winning the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games – which would have guaranteed an Olympic berth – that they lost focus and Malaysia punished them for that. It was the lowest point for the team in a tumultuous 2018, which also saw two changes of coach, failure to medal at the Commonwealth Games and inability to go beyond the quarterfinals in a World Cup played at home, at this very venue.
This year, in comparison, has been quiet; perhaps a much-needed antidote. India have not had a single major assignment – the FIH Series Finals technically was but it was a competition full of minnows except Asian Games champions Japan – and most of the time has been spent playing practice matches around the globe.
Old hands return
Yet, some uncertainty remains. After dabbling with the policy of focusing on younger players and phasing out the veterans for a major part of this four-year Olympic cycle, India will ironically enter the two-match qualifying series with most of the senior players back in the squad.
Drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh, defender Birendra Lakra, forwards Ramandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay are all back in the squad after being in-and-out for a major part of last year. Forward SV Sunil, who was dropped for the World Cup last year, returns as the vice-captain. “I don’t know the history but what I was told is he was injured,” Reid says about Sunil. Curiously, injury was never mentioned as a reason to drop Sunil and when he was excluded from the World Cup, it seemed like the end of his career. “The 18 players here are all equal. Those who deserve to be in the team are there,” captain Manpreet Singh says.
The return of these veterans makes India overwhelming favourites to win this tie. Then again, they are quick to give the Pakistan example. Sunil, the only player in this squad to suffer the ignominy of failing to qualify for the Olympics, even cited the 2008 example. “Our mindset should be about winning. But we don’t want to underestimate Russia,” Manpreet says. “Sunil has given us the example of 2008.”