Ranchi (Jharkhand), Jan 11: With the huge reputation they gained by finishing fourth in the Tokyo Olympics on the line, the Indian women's hockey team goes into battle mode here in tournament 1 of the Women's FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers hoping to make it to their third Olympics in a row.
The Indian team had finished fourth in the 1980 Olympics at Moscow when women's hockey made its debut at the Olympics. They missed the action in the next three decades before finally qualifying for the 2016 edition in Rio de Janeiro.
A brilliant display in the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in which they defeated Australia in the quarterfinals before going down to Argentina in the semis and eventually finished fourth enhanced their reputation as a team to be taken seriously. That was followed by a third-place finish in the FIH Pro League 2021-22 when a few higher-ranked teams pulled out due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is this enhanced reputation that will be on the line following underwhelming performances in the 2022 World Cup and the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, where they had to settle for the bronze medal.
When the Savita Punia-led side steps out for action into the Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Astro Turf Hockey Stadium, Ranchi pressure will be on it to prove that the Tokyo Olympics was their breakout event and not a flash in the pan.
Even though the team has done well in recent times by winning bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in Hangzhou, gold at the FIH Nations Cup, which took them back into the FIH Pro League, and the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai, the Olympics is the real deal and it will help the Indian women's hockey team prove that it not only deserves their highest-ever position of sixth in the FIH Rankings, but also is ready to climb higher into the top-five.
However, the team led by goalkeeper Savita and coached by Jenneke Schopman of the Netherlands has a tough task at hand in Ranchi as it is placed in a difficult group.
India are in Group B along with New Zealand, the United States and Italy as eight teams in the fray have been divided into two groups of four each. Pool A comprises World No.5 Germany, 2018 Asian Games gold medallist
Japan, Chile and the Czech Republic. These eight teams are fighting for the three spots available at Ranchi for the Paris Olympic Games later this year.
On paper, Germany should clinch one of the three spots up for grabs in Ranchi, while India, New Zealand, USA and Japan will be fighting for the two remaining berths from this event.
In the other event being held concurrently in Valencia, (Spain), Belgium, Ireland, South Korea and Ukraine comprise Group A while Great Britain, Spain, Canada and Malaysia make up Group B. Belgium, Spain, Great Britain are expected to claim the three berths from the second event.
It will be a tough group for India as only a few years back both New Zealand and the United States were ranked higher than them and though they have slipped down the pecking order, they are still capable of denying.
India have never beaten New Zealand in the FIH-level tournaments and have an inferior head-to-head record against the United States, winning four, and losing nine with two draws.
In 15 matches against New Zealand, India's lone 'win' was in the bronze medal match in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and that too via the shootout. India defeated New Zealand 2-1 via a shootout tiebreaker, which technically is considered a draw.
They had beaten the USA in one match and lost in the next in the two-match Olympic qualifier for the Tokyo 2020, scraping through on goal-scored as the two teams tied on points.
The current Indian squad's task is made extra difficult by an inexperienced forward line in which Lalremsiami is the most experienced player (126 caps) in the absence of Vandana Katariya.
India will depend a lot on their experienced midfield, especially Navneet Kaur (148 caps), Neha (143 caps) and Salima Tete (94). With the 31-year-old Sushila Chanu not in the squad. The absence of Sushila, who received the prestigious Arjuna Award from President Droupadi Murmu a couple of days back, will increase the pressure on these three stars at Ranchi.
Though the defence presents a settled look with Monika (219), Nikki Pradhan (166 caps) and Udita (97 caps) as the mainstays, the absence of Deep Grace Ekka will surely be felt. Deep Grace could have also contributed to penalty corner conversions which is could turn out to be India's Achilles heel as they have to depend on the 20-year-old Deepika, who has played only 23 matches so far, in the absence of Gurjit Kaur, the most experienced drag-flicker in the country.
According to coach Schopman, Gurjit was not considered as she has not played many matches in the last year.
In the pre-tournament press conference in Ranchi on Thursday, Schopman refused as far as Deep Grace is concerned, the head coach has refused to give any details only saying that the player has to introspect why she is not here in Ranchi.
One just hopes that Deep Grace was left out of the team on performance issues and there is not other matter. But her assured presence in the defence line will surely be missed, especially against strong and experienced forward-lines.
In skipper Savita India has one of the best goal-tenderers in the World who has won the Goalkeeper of the Year award twice, her understudy Bichu Devi is also gaining experience and seems ready to take over from her, whenever the time comes.
All in all, India go into the event with high hopes of clinching a berth in the third successive Olympics but it will not at all be easy.
They start their campaign against the United States on the opening day on Saturday while Savita Punia's side will run into their nemesis New Zealand on Sunday. These two clashes will decide India's fate as far as Paris Olympics is concerned. (IANS)