New Delhi - Indian men's hockey team will be striving to return to the Olympics in London after missing the Games for the first time in 80 years at Beijing four years ago. The eight times champions have the advantage of playing at home in the qualifiers beginning at at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium here Saturday, taking on Singapore in the lung opener.
Four years ago India fell at the last hurdle narrowly, losing to Great Britain in the final of the qualifiers in Santiago, Chile.
The sport has gone through a tumultous phase since missing Beijing, things have started looking up a bit after New Delhi hosted the 2010 World Cup, though they finished eighth in a 12-team competition.
India won the silver medal in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and missed the London Olympic berth by losing to Malaysia in the semi-final of the 2010 Asian Games through a golden goal and settling for the bronze.
Coach Jose Brasa had to go after the reverse in the Guangzhou Asian Games, and in came Australian Michael Nobbs. He took over in August last year and within a month he piloted the team to win the Asian Champions Trophy, beating Pakistan in the final. The team also did well in the Champions Challenge I in South Africa before losing to Belgium in the final.
India have been handed the most favourable draw in the qualifiers here and they cannot have any excuse for making it to London. Psychologically, they should be upbeat as a they are at 10 in the world the highest ranked team.
The exposure in the last 12 months has given the team tremendous confidence and it reflected in captain Bharat Chettri's remark that they would be using the first two matches against Singapore (World No.41) and Italy (world No.28) as warm-up games. The teams that can cause some concern for the Indians are the hard-running Canada, ranked 14th, France (18th) and Poland (19th).
Chettri along with five of his teammates, V.Raghunath, Ignace Tirkey, Sardar Singh, Tushar Khandekar and Shivendra Singh, was part of the team that had the chilling experience of getting knocked out in Chile.
Senior defender Ignace, who along with Sandeep Singh is the only player to have the experience of playing in an Olympics in 2004, said there were various factors that led to debacle in Santiago in 2008.
"We don't want to think of the past, this team is determined to do well and qualify for the Olympics," said Ignace.
Ignace said the presence of former players in the back-up staff has helped the team immensely.
Coach Michael Nobbs has roped in Dilip Tirkey, Mohammad Riaz, Clarence Lobo and Jugraj Singh to fine tune the skills of the players in different departments of the game.
Dilip, who was a part of the team in Santiago, has passed on some of his tricks that Chettri feels has done a world of good to the team's defence.
Jugraj, whose career was cut short in 2003 after a serious accident, has been mentoring drag-flickers Sandeep Singh, Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh.
Sandeep said the 28-year-old Jugraj, who was India's answer to Pakistan's Sohail Abbas and Dutch legend Taeke Taekema, has improved the team's penalty-corner conversions.
Sandeep said since Jugraj took over India's penalty conversion rate has improved to 70 percent.
"Jugraj has been working hard with all the defenders and now we have a fair rate of conversion, which is around 70 percent. He also tells us how to handle pressure situations," said Sandeep.
In the women's competition, the Indian team would be looking to end their 32-year-old wait to play in the Olympics. They played last in 1980 Moscow Games, where the men's team won the last of their eight gold medals in a devalued competition after the western world had pulled out protesting Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
They start their campaign against against lowly Ukraine. The Indian team has prepared well for the tournament, with a 4-0 whitewash in a Test series against Azerbaijan, 5-2 win against Canada and a 1-1 draw against Italy in the run-up.
South Africa are the highest ranked team in the tournament at World No.12 while India are 13th. Italy (19th), Canada (20th), Ukraine (26th) and Poland (28th) make up the numbers. South Africa are the favourites but India will be the team to beat.
India coach C.R. Kumar said the focus will be not lose early leads.
"We conceded early leads in some matches and we worked on these areas during the practice matches. We set targets on every game that we played in the practice and the girls have not repeated those mistakes," Kumar said.
"We have seen 5-10 minutes of Ukraine's practice match against Italy and they have a couple of very skilled players, they rotated the ball frequently and we are looking forward to the match," he said.
Men's squad: Bharat Chetri (captain/goalkeeper), P.R.Sreejesh (goalkeeper), Sandeep Singh, V.Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh, Sardar Singh (vice-captain), Manpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra, Ignace Tirkey, Kothajit Singh, S.V. Sunil, Sarvanjit Singh, Shivendra Singh, Gurvinder Singh Chandi, Tushar Khandker, Danish Mujtaba, Yuvraj Walmiki, S.K. Uthappa
Women's squad: Yogita Bali (goalkeeper), Savita (goalkeeper), Jaspreet Kaur, Joydeep Kaur, Subhadra Pradhan, P Sushila Chanu, Asunta Lakra (captain), Kirandeep Kaur (vice-captain), Deepika, Ritu Rani, Mukta Prava Barla, Poonam Rani, Vandana Kataria, Rani Rampal, Soundarya Yendala, Anuradha Devi, Rosaline Dung Dung, Jasjeet Kaur Handa