FIH Hockey World Series: Manpreet Singh-led India guarding against complacency

Two Olympic qualifying spots are available from the FIH Hockey World Series Finals starting in Bhubaneswar on Thursday.

Manpreet Singh says any team can reach the semifinals.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

The margin of difference between the highest and lowest ranked teams in the FIH Hockey Series Finals is a whopping 38 places. India at fifth and Uzbekistan at 43rd are among the eight teams in contention for the two Olympic qualifying spots available from the competition that starts here on Thursday.

Tuesday, though, saw what is most likely to end up as a preview to the title clash, come June 15, with the host taking on Japan in its second practice match at the renovated Kalinga Stadium. And if the non-competitive outing was any indication, the Tokyo Olympics host is keen to prove its Asian Games triumph was no fluke, stretching the Indians wide and testing them hard.

Read: Converting opportunities will be key in FIH Series Finals, says Manpreet

Tuesday also saw all the eight teams face the media for the first time, giving an idea into their mindset ahead of the competition. With most of the teams being unknown quantities, it was a chance to glimpse into the preparations and expectations from teams like Mexico, USA and Uzbekistan. Interestingly, only five Mexican players have arrived here so far -- the rest are now expected on Wednesday morning after repeated delays.

However, with most of them simply looking to get some much-needed experience and hoping to cause an upset or two, there was little to learn, language barrier not helping the cause. “We are looking to win because it will give us ranking points,” Japan captain Manabu Yamashita said. “We played at the 2000 Olympics and are keen to make the grade again,” Poland vice-captain Mateusz Poltaszewski declared.

But with all eyes on India, expected to roll over the opposition, Manpreet Singh sounded cautious. Having learnt its lessons at the Asian Games, India is keen to avoid any talk of either pressure or complacency.

“If we had won the Asian Games we wouldn’t have been playing here. That is history. We shouldn’t underestimate any of the teams here, one good day on the field and you never know. Any team can come into the semifinals and that is a knockout game,” Manpreet admitted.

But the Indians seem to have at least made an effort to find out about their competitors. “We heard that Russia played against Belgium recently and conceded just one PC, which means their defence must have been really good. Italy upset Malaysia and Wales beat Canada recently. So rankings don’t matter,” he added.

Interestingly, this would be the first and last edition of the HSF – the FIH has decided to do away with the event citing expense concerns, with a second division of the elite Pro League with promotions and demotions in place, likely to replace it from 2020.