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India ready with Plan B for Olympic qualification after Jakarta Asiad failure

Errol D’Cruz

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India captain Manpreet Singh addresses the media ahead of the FIH Men's Series Finals in Bhubaneswar starting Thursday. Photos: Hockey India

Panaji: India’s men’s hockey team would hope to complete formalities in the FIH Series Finals starting in Bhubaneswar on Thursday with minimal fuss.

The tournament, a pathway to Olympic qualification, will see eight nations split into two pools vie for two slots in the all-important Olympic qualifiers later this year. At World No. 5, India are well ahead of the field, the next best being South Africa (No. 16). Russia, opponents in the opener, are at No. 23.

Reaching the final at the Kalinga Stadium appears certain but in modern sport it’s never over until it’s over. The Bhubaneswar campaign represents India’s second attempt to qualify after Route 1 brought failure last year.

Defeat in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games semifinals against Malaysia brought India’s bid to qualify directly for the Olympics to a screeching halt. Only the gold medal would have ensured a spot in Tokyo next year.

If by some quirk India fail to finish in the top two in Bhubaneswar, it, however, won’t be the end of their quest. According to the Olympic qualifying format, India stand an excellent chance of being invited to the qualifiers on the basis of world rankings.

World No. 5 Team India face 23rd-ranked Russia in their FIH Men’s Series Finals opener.

It works like this:

Five continental champions qualify directly for the Olympics. So do hosts Japan who also won the Asian Games gold medal—a result that frees up a spot in the qualifiers.

There will be 12 nations at the Olympics which means there would be seven spots to fill after the hosts and four continental champions (Europe, the Americas, Oceania and Africa) book berths.

The qualifiers would comprise seven double-leg play-offs among teams qualifying from the following routes.

  • The elite FIH Pro League (four nations).
  • FIH Series Finals (for nations not in the FIH Pro League) in Kuala Lumpur, Bhubaneswar and Le Touquet, France (six nations in all).
  • Four nations, apart from the above, determined by world rankings

Further qualifying spots could be freed up by nations winning continental championships and booking berths in qualifiers from either the FIH Pro League or the FIH Series Finals.

For instance, Australia could well win the Oceania title and finish among the top four in the FIH Pro League.

Or, for that matter, Canada (who won the FIH Series Finals in Kuala Lumpur last month) could win the Pan-American Games gold medal to free up another spot in the qualifiers.

And then, Olympic hosts Japan in the fray in Bhubaneswar, could enter the final to free up yet another spot. The world rankings would then be considered to fill up vacant spots and India, at No. 5, are virtually guaranteed one. Even if no further vacant spots are created, India are likely to squeeze into the qualifiers on the basis of world rankings.

India may well have followed their quest of qualifying for the Olympic qualifiers by jetting across the continents in the FIH Pro League incepted in January this year.

Hockey India, however, withdrew the team from the competition after pulling out the women’s team it reckoned stood little or no chance in qualifying via the Pro League because of their relatively low ranking (currently No. 9). It was a queer sense of gender equality and it deprived the men’s team of experiencing what appears to be an epoch-making competition unprecedented in the annals of sport.

L-R: Players representing Russia, South Africa, USA and Mexico at the Captain’s Press Conference in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday.

The Pro League route apparently wouldn’t have made too much of a difference to India’s prospects of qualifying for the Olympics but vying with the big guns would have helped a team on the up gain immeasurably.

The travel, adaptation to conditions and the development of bench strength would have helped keep pace with the leaders—World Cup champions Belgium, Olympic champions Argentina, Australia, The Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Spain.

Spain replaced India but the field reduced to eight when Pakistan withdrew after confirming participation.

The FIH Pro League, though, drew controversy in Europe where it threatened to play havoc with the club leagues—the very foundation of the game on the continent.

Tweaking of the regulations then allowed for a 32-player roster that has enabled team managements juggle with the playing 16 as national squad players assisted clubs during crucial league-ending phases in their respective countries as well as the European Hockey League (hockey’s version of the Champions League).

With India not enduring club vs country issues, a stable squad would have been a formidable force in the FIH Pro League with an excellent chance of finishing among the top four of the six-month event. Off the pitch, the Pro League with its home-and-away format would have done much for the sport’s profile as evinced in participating nations.

The Indian women, in the meantime, travel to Hiroshima, Japan, attempting to make the top two of the FIH Series Finals and thereby seal a spot in the Olympic qualifiers.

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India thump New Zealand, wins Olympic test event

Press Trust of India

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India had lost 1-2 to New Zealand earlier in round robin league-stage.

Tokyo: The Indian men’s hockey team won the Olympic Test event here on Wednesday, beating New Zealand 5-0 to avenge the loss it endured in their round robin clash.

Captain Harmanpreet Singh (7th minute) set the ball rolling before Shamsher Singh (18th minute), Nilakanta Sharma (22nd minute), Gursahibjit Singh (26th minute) and Mandeep Singh (27th minute) scored for India at the Oi Hockey Stadium here.

India had lost 1-2 to New Zealand earlier in round robin league-stage.

“We played very well. We managed to score our opportunities at the start of the game,” Harmanpreet said after the triumph.

“I think the final was always going to be tough, we lost to New Zealand earlier. But we had been having practice sessions after that and worked on our mistakes to win today,” he added.

Both teams began the match on a cautious note by turning over the ball in the mid-field. India won a penalty corner in the seventh minute, but couldn’t capitalise on the opportunity.

However, skipper Harmanpreet didn’t miss out on a re-awarded penalty corner. He executed a perfect dragflick to put India in the lead.

The Indian team continued to hold possession and put tremendous pressure on the New Zealand defense as they ended the first quarter at 1-0.

Shamsher scored India’s second goal through a penalty corner in the 18th minute.

New Zealand managed to make only two circle entries in the second quarter as the Indian team scored three more goals.

Nilakanta found the back of the net in the 22nd minute before Gursahibjit and Mandeep scored in quick succession.

Vivek Prasad intercepted the ball brilliantly to assist a goal for Gursahibjit and Mandeep converted a penalty corner just before the half-time whistle.

After an action-packed first half, the intensity dropped from both sides. New Zealand tried to make a few inroads in the third quarter as they took a shot in the 37th minute which went wide of the post.

Jarmanpreet Singh saved a penalty corner in the next minute as India and New Zealand played out a goalless quarter but the former held the lead at 5-0.

In the last quarter, India ensured they stayed in the lead and didn’t allow New Zealand to break through their defense throughout the match.

India’s attacking approach in the match paid off as they walked off the pitch as winners of the competition.

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Mandeep hat-trick sends India in final of Olympic hockey test event

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Tokyo: Striker Mandeep Singh struck a fine hat-trick to help the Indian men’s hockey team beat hosts Japan 6-3 and book a summit clash berth in the olympic test event here on Tuesday. todays sports news headlines

The Indian team bounced back from their 1-2 loss against New Zealand with an impressive display in their third match at the Oi Hockey Stadium here. India again face New Zealand in the summit clash on Wednesday.

Mandeep found the target in the 9th, 29th and 30th minutes while Nilakanta Sharma (3rd), Nilam Sanjeep Xess (7th) and Gurjant Singh (41st) were the other scorers for India. todays sports news headlines

Kentaro Fukuda (25th), Kenta Tanaka (36th) and Kazuma Murata (52nd) scored the goals for Japan.

Nilakanta gave India an excellent start through a field goal in the third minute. Buoyed by the early lead, the Indian team put tremendous pressure on the Japan defence as Gurjant Singh took a shot on goal, but saw his effort going wide of the post. todays sports news headlines

However, a penalty corner was awarded to India in the seventh minute which was converted brilliantly by Nilam Sanjeep to help the team take a 2-0 lead. todays sports news headlines

India continued to take the aggressive approach and Mandeep found the back of the net with an excellent field goal in the ninth minute.

Japan tried to make inroads in the last few minutes of the first quarter as they won a penalty corner. Gurinder Singh positioned himself brilliantly and defended the shot on the goal line. India led 3-0 at the end of the first quarter.

India continued their attacking game in the second quarter with Jarmanpreet Singh taking a shot on goal, but putting it wide of the post. Captain Harmanpreet Singh had a shot on target, but the Japanese goalkeeper Takashi Yoshikawa pulled off a brilliant save.

Japan managed to open their account through a field goal through Kentaro Fukuda in the 25th minute, but Mandeep scored two field goals in quick succession to help India take a big 5-1 lead. The Indian vice-captain scored just before the half-time whistle in the 29th and 30th minutes.

Japan started the third quarter on an aggressive note. They took a shot on goal, which was blocked out brilliantly by goalkeeper Krishan Pathak. However, the Japanese team kept putting pressure on the Indian defence and found a field goal through Kenta Tanaka in the 36th minute.

India did not let the momentum shift towards the Japanese side as forward Gurjant found the back of the net in the 41st minute to make it 6-2 which put the world number 5 side in a dominant position at the end of the third quarter.

Japan attacked the Indian defence in the the fourth quarter and scored their third goal through Kazuma Murata in the 52nd minute. sports update

India were awarded a penalty corner with five minutes left on the clock, but the shot went wide off the post. India also saved a penalty corner in the dying minutes of the match. sports update

The win put India in the second spot in the points table and they face toppers New Zealand in the summit clash on Wednesday. sports update

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India force a draw with Australia in Olympic test event

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current sports news
Action during India's match.

Tokyo: The Indian women’s hockey team came back twice from a goal deficit to hold world number 2 side Australia 2-2 in a hard-fought round-robin league match of the Olympic test vevent here on Sunday. current sports news

Vandana Katariya (36th) and Gurjit Kaur (59th) scored for India to cancel out strikes from Kaitlin Nobbs (14th) and Grace Stewart (43rd) in their second match of the tournament. India had beaten hosts Japan 2-1 in their first match on Saturday. current sports news

World number 10 India began the match aggressively, matching Australia’s attacking hockey with their own brand which saw both teams earn penalty corners. However, neither side managed to score. current sports news

But in the 14th minute, Australia were awarded a penalty stroke after an Indian defender blocked a shot at goal. Nobbs made no mistake in converting from the spot to give Australia a 1-0 advantage. current sports news

The world number 2 side dominated the second quarter completely, putting the Indian team under intense pressure through multiple attacks and penalty corners. But India’s defence held firm and goalkeeper Savita made a couple of great saves to deny Australia who were 1-0 up at the half-time break. current sports news

The third quarter again saw Australia dominate possession and create a couple of goal-scoring opportunities through penalty corners. However, Savita again made fine saves to deny the Australians.

India struck on the break as Vandana Katariya finished off a superb move to equalise in the 36th minute. But the lead did not last long as Australia started to look for their second goal.

It was in the 43rd minute that Australia found their second goal through some exquisite team work, which saw Grace Stewart also registering her name on the score-sheet to give Australia a 2-1 lead.

It was a tough ask for the Indian team as Australia did not give them enough space inside the striking circle. However, the Indians showed determination as they kept looking for the equaliser in the last quarter.

With moves breaking down, and chances going waste, it looked like Australia would hold onto their 2-1 lead, but with just a couple of minutes remaining on the clock, India won a crucial penalty corner in the 59th minute.

And, prolific drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur stepped up and struck a sweet blow into the back of the net to earn India a well-deserved draw.

The Indian women’s team will face China on Tuesday in their third and last round-robin match of the tournament.

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