Initially not scheduled to train on the eve of its opening game of the Hockey Series Finals here, India decided to turn up after all on Wednesday evening, for a brief workout. The only request was to have it later than usual with the team keen on catching up with the cricket team’s opening World Cup encounter against South Africa in England.
Unlike its cricketing counterpart, however, the hockey team faces a more modest opposition in Russia (ranked 22) to kickstart its journey for an Olympic spot. On paper, the target for fifth-ranked India is an easy one with the next best team at Bhubaneswar being South Africa, at 16. The stakes, though, are much higher.
The Indians missed the bus at the Asian Games last year and paid for it by losing a handful of senior players. The World Cup here six months ago was a disappointment and saw the team end up being coach-less for a good part of the first four months of 2019.
Graham Reid is unlikely to worry about suffering a similar fate here, a top-two finish being enough for India to advance to the Olympic Qualifiers. But reaching the final would not suffice, with India expected to win the competition and set a few scoring records en route, like it did in Jakarta before fumbling in the semifinal.
The team seems to have learnt its lessons well. “We are not complacent. One good day in the field and you never know. We felt our finishing needed improvement and the past three weeks have been very important for us in terms of getting these right,” India skipper Manpreet Singh said
Ramandeep Singh’s return is part of trying to shore up the finishing and going by his outings in the practice games so far, the forward has recovered completely from his knee injury. India did not have a great build-up to the tournament, losing big against Australia in its tour Down Under but won its two practice matches against South Africa and Japan easily.
Russia, meanwhile, said it was an honour to play India in the opener. “India is an excellent team. We watched the World Cup matches here and are looking forward to experience that feeling,” Russian forward Pavel Golubev said.
With the temperatures shooting past 45 degrees and the state government advising people to stay indoors during the day, the organisers have tried to work around the conditions by slotting some of the games early morning. On Thursday, South Africa and USA would be the first ones to do so while Poland plays Uzbekistan in the day’s other game.
For the Indians, though, the unknown factor has always been a banana peel they have often tripped on. Barring Japan and South Africa, they haven’t played the rest anytime in the near past and, as the team admitted, that makes it difficult to plan. The best option would be to emulate Australia, who simply go all out against unknowns, leaving no scope for upsets. That would be the biggest contribution from Reid in his maiden test.
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