India celebrates its berth to the 2012 Games after missing out on the 2008 Olympics.
India celebrates its berth to the 2012 Games after missing out on the 2008 Olympics.
(Photo: Stanislas Brochier)

'In the Spotlight' is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today we feature the men's national team of India.

The Basics:
The Indian men are currently 10th in the FIH World Ranking. Before missing the 2008 Games in Beijing, India had played in every Olympics since the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. They still top the charts with a record eight gold medals and an uninterrupted series of six titles between 1928 and 1956. The team also has one silver and two bronze medals to their credit, but the last time India was on the podium was  more than 30 years ago in 1980 in Moscow, when the competition was marred by the boycott of most top nations.

India was also a force in the FIH World Cup when it was played on natural grass, finishing third in the inaugural competition, second in 1973 and finally winning the title in 1975. However, since artificial turf was introduced, India’s best standing has been a modest fifth, their worst a stunning 12th (and last) in 1986 in London and their last four appearances have been very much lacklustre.

The Road to London:
India finished behind Pakistan and Malaysia at the 2010 Asian Games, missing the direct qualification for London. In the Olympic Qualifier played in Delhi, the team was eager to avenge their traumatic non-qualification four years earlier and won all their matches, out-scoring the other teams 44-9 and dominating France 8-1 in the Final.

Players to Watch:
Star midfielder Sardar Singh is a key player for the Indian team. Skillful, efficient and tireless, he was named to the FIH All-Star Team in 2010 and 2011, was named Player of the Tournament at the Olympic Qualifier in Delhi. He wears the Captain’s armband when Bharat Chetri is not on the pitch. Prolific penalty-corner specialist Sandeep Singh has one of the most powerful drag- flicks on the international scene. He scored 16 goals during the Olympic Qualifier, destroying the French defense in the final with five goals.

Coach:
India has been coached since 2011 by Australian Michael Nobbs, a former international that played in the 1984 Olympic Games with Ric Charlesworth and Terry Walsh. He honed his coaching knowledge at the renowned Australian Institute of Sports, and moved onto Japan to gain international experience. Nobbs made some tough decisions, selecting some young skilled players over seasoned veterans for the qualifier, and implemented a tough physical training program to bring the fitness level of the team closer to international standards.

Strengths:
In open play, the danger can come from any of the Indian forwards, who are able to dazzle the defense (and the crowd) with their skills and score spectacular goals. Shivendra Singh, SV Sunil and Gurwinder Singh Chandi combined to score 16 field goals at the Olympic Qualifier in Delhi. Sandeep Singh’s lethal drag-flick is worrying enough for the opposing defense, which will be hope to avoid conceding penalty-corners at all costs.

Weaknesses:
Nobbs knows that his team will not reach its potential until they can sustain their pace of play and maintain their focus for a full match: “top teams do not give many chances to the opposition and Indian players should curb their habit of committing silly mistakes”.

Despite the experience of Ignace Tirkey, the Indian defense is often overwhelmed under pressure. There is also uncertainty around the goal-keeper position. Captain Bharat Chetri is considered the starting keeper, but young PR Sreejesh has been called into action for most of the meaningful matches lately, including the Final of the Olympic Qualifier.

Crystal Ball:
The qualification for the Olympic Games triggered a wave of enthusiasm among the Indian fans, quick to hope that the golden days of Indian hockey are finally back.  Captain Bharat Chetri optimistically thinks that a semi-final berth is possible. Realistically, it would be a very good result for this young team if they finish in the top half of the field or equal their last Olympic standings (7th in 2000 and 2004).