Indian hockey rose in stature in 2016

The year 2016 was good for Indian hockey and from here on, it’s all about ticking the right boxes next year to carry on the gradual progress.

India won the Junior World Cup title after a hiatus of 15 years.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

A few disappointments aside, it was all about Indian hockey's phenomenal rise in stature, both on and off the field, in 2016 with a historic silver medal in the Champions Trophy and Junior World Cup title after a hiatus of 15 years being the biggest achievements.

If the Champions Trophy silver, gold in Asian Champions Trophy and Junior World Cup title were the high points on the turf, former Hockey India chief Narinder Batra's election to the post of International Hockey Federation (FIH) President was the talking point off the pitch in the year goneby.

Narindra Batra's appointment

Batra was unanimously elected to the FIH President's post in November this year, thus becoming the first Indian and Asian to head the world body since its inception.

>Narinder Batra: 'I will continue association with Indian hockey'

Batra's elevation to the FIH chief's post has also changed the power centre of world hockey from Europe to Asia.

The year 2016 was an Olympic year and much was expected from India and the eight-time Olympic champions did achieve success on the pitch barring a few failures — major among them being a loss to Pakistan in the final of the SAF Games and a quarterfinal exit in the Rio Games. But at the fag end of the year, the Indian colts lifted the Junior World Cup title after a long gap of 15 years on their home turf in Lucknow.

The year, however, started on a bad note for the sport. For those who believe in perfect starts, defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Pakistan in Guwahati in the SAF Games final for the third consecutive time was as disastrous a beginning as one could imagine.

In the earlier two editions of the Games in 2006 and 2010, Pakistan had won the gold by beating India. But, the SAF Games team did give India two players — goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya and Ajit Kumar Pandey — who played an major role in the nation's title triumph in the Junior World Cup later in the year.

Meanwhile, the senior men's side travelled to Ipoh, Malaysia for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, a tournament looked upon as a preparation for the Rio Olympics.

Dutchman Roelant Oltmans' was at the helm and was given the charge of preparing the side for the Olympics following the unceremonious exits of Terry Walsh and Paul van Ass.

In the Azlan Shah Cup, it was smooth sailing for India till the final where it was hammered 4-0 by the mighty Australians. The thrashing once again raised questions about India's submission against big teams in big matches and Oltmans was desperate to prove the theory wrong in his next assignment.

The Dutchman, a master tactician, then decided to change the composition of the team and he was helped by a rare controversy involving the talismanic Sardar Singh. Then Indian captain was accused of sexual exploitation by a British citizen, Ashpal Kaur Bhogal, and to keep him safe the ace midfielder was left out from the London-bound Champions Trophy squad.

Champions Trophy success

In the Champions Trophy, the Indians played out of their skins to reach the title clash, where they probably played their best match of not only the year against a very strong Australian outfit only to end on the losing side.

Despite the loss, the Indian team created history — a Champions Trophy silver as they had never gone beyond the bronze earlier.

Then came the event which the hockey crazy fans of the country were looking forward to, the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro.

With dip in form and controversy surrounding him, Sardar was removed as captain and in his place ace goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh was handed over the arm-band for Rio Olympics.

With a rich Olympic history behind it, much was expected from the Indians in the Rio Games. The Indians did impress in the league stages and expectedly qualified for the quarterfinals in Rio where they lost 1-3 against a resurgent Belgium despite taking the initial lead.

The Indian eves too created their own bit of history in 2016 by qualifying for the Olympics after a gap of 36 years. But their campaign turned out to be even more disappointing as they finished last in the 12-team competition having managed to draw just one game (2-2 against Japan).

The quarterfinal exit of the men’s team not only broke the hearts of the players, but also the hopes a billion countrymen who now will have to wait for four more years for the elusive medal when the Games head to Tokyo.

Asian Champions

The Indian men’s next assignment was the Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan, Malaysia and chief coach Oltmans made it clear to his wards before leaving for Malaysia that only the trophy would to some extent, heal the Olympic ouster pain.

The Indian players rightly responded to his call and defeated arch-rivals Pakistan 3-2 in the final to >lift the Asian Champions Trophy for a second time.

>Indian women win Asian Champions Trophy

The burden of captaincy gone, Sardar sparkled in Kuantan, while Rupinder Pal Singh finally stamped his authority as a defender as well as penalty corner specialist with 11 goals in the tournament.

Junior World Hockey Champions after 15 years

It was then left to the junior men’s team to provide a resounding and perfect send-off to the year and the colts didn’t disappoint. The hosts produced a commanding performance from the word go to reclaim the Junior World Cup title by beating Belgium 2-1 in the final.

>Hockey junior world cup: The 18 that created history

For Indian hockey, 2016 was a year in which much was promised and achieved as well. It was also a year where India made significant and visible advancements. But, deep down somewhere the pain of missing out on an Olympic medal will remain for four more years.

Nonetheless, 2016 was a good year for Indian hockey and from here on, it’s all about ticking the right boxes next year to carry on the gradual progress.