Panaji: Job done! India completed the formality of booking their berth in the men’s Olympic hockey qualifiers with minimal fuss. The first step was making the final of the FIH Men’s Series Finals in Bhubaneswar that concluded on Saturday.
Then, victory over South Africa ensured maximum ranking points on offer to enhance their chances of retaining fifth place in the world rankings and gaining a favourable draw in the Olympic qualifiers.
India, under coach Graham Reid of Australia, followed the script to a T but they know too well that celebration is best kept muted. The Olympic qualifiers get going in October-November this year and Manpreet Singh’s boys realise one slip there could be fatal.
The qualifiers comprise 14 nations who haven’t booked a direct berth to the 2020 Tokyo Games by winning the continental championships. These include the top four from the FIH Pro League, six from three FIH Series Finals and four nations with the highest rankings from those not having qualified from any of the aforementioned routes.
The draw for the Olympic qualifiers will take place after the world rankings are established on September 8 following the completion of all continental championships.
Those making the grade will be paired off in seven double-legged playoffs hosted by the nation with a higher ranking. The winners join hosts Japan and four other continental winners (Europe, the Americas, Oceania and Africa) in Tokyo next year.
Japan qualified on two counts–being Asian Games champions as well as hosts. This freed up a spot in the qualifiers which now have seven playoffs instead of six had the Japanese not won gold in Jakarta last year.
With Australia, Argentina and one of Belgium or The Netherlands (teams ranked above India) likely to win their continental championships and book a direct berth to Tokyo, India could well be the second-best ranked team in the qualifiers enjoying the virtual guarantee of hosting a playoff at home—potentially against a lower-ranked nation in the No. 16-20 region.
If none of the higher-ranked teams emerge continental champions, an unlikely scenario, India will start as the fifth-best ranked team in the qualifiers and would clash with a tougher opponent in the playoffs.
Reid’s team had much their own way in a roughly tier 2 tournament in Bhubaneswar where a place in the final was a foregone conclusion.
India began with a 10-0 rout of Russia (ranked 22) and faced their sternest test in the competition while accounting for 21st ranked Poland 3-1.
A 10-0 rout of Uzbekistan (43) brought the hosts a direct spot in the semifinals where they overran Japan (No. 18) 7-2 but not before falling behind by an early goal.
The India-Japan clash was billed to adorn the final. However, with the USA pulling off a surprise win over South Africa and drawing with Japan, the hosts found themselves squaring up to the Asian Games gold medalists in the crunch semifinals.
The encounter was delicately poised at 2-2 but India raced away with the match after halftime and Japan lost their way after failing to take queer umpiring decisions in their stride.
In front of a packed house at the Kalinga Stadium, India got their act absolutely correct with a flurry of early goals against 16th-ranked South Africa in the final and a 5-1 win ensued.
A goal record of 35-4 that presented Varun Kumar as tournament top scorer with six goals underlined India’s domination of the event, something not out of the realm of expectation.
The mediocre opposition not-with-standing, Reid who replaced Harendra Singh after the World Cup held in December, can take plenty of positives from his squad’s showing in Bhubaneswar after a none-too-encouraging tour of Australia and the disappointment of finishing second to South Korea in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia, after starting firm favourites.
For one, the unearthing of forward Gurshahibjit Singh augurs well for the future. The return of Ramandeep Singh from a long injury layoff, in the form of goal poacher and provider, made for a devastating attack in which Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh were constant threats to hapless defences.
The old failing of wasted chances, however, did show up. The match against Poland was a point in case. Compounding prodigality was the struggle to circumvent the Poles’ defensive structure and it resulted in the closest margin of victory for the hosts in an otherwise free-wheeling display in other matches.
Youngsters Vivek Prasad and Neelkantha Sharma showed pluck and verve in the midfield and the penalty corner trio of Amit Rohidas, Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar drew accolades from their coach for a conversion rate of 39 per cent.
The defence proved reliable with the bulwark Surender Kumar in attendance and the sprightly Birendra Lakra doubling up with frequent thrusts upfront. Goalkeepers, the veteran PR Sreejesh and his deputy Krishan Pathak, provided an able last line of defence as they alternated over the quarters.
The team’s next assignment is an Olympic test event in Tokyo in August. The all-important qualifiers follow and January will spell a new era for Indian hockey with participation in the Pro League after withdrawing from the inaugural edition now in its business end.