In a year when top-ranked teams were busy fighting it out in the Pro League and amping up their game against the toughest opponents, the highlight for the Indian men and women’s hockey teams was booking the all-important ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Having decided against being part of the elite nine-nation competition — eight for the men after Pakistan pulled out — the Indian teams had to make do with lower-ranked opponents in the first half of 2019 but came out victorious in the few events that mattered. And none more than the Olympic Qualifiers in November, hosted at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, a city that has become the virtual home of Indian hockey.

Rani to the rescue

While the men had an easy outing in the two-leg Qualifiers against a much-weaker Russia that, nevertheless, did expose a few chinks in the Indian armour, the women sealed their Tokyo spot in dramatic fashion, led by captain Rani Rampal, against USA. Taking a 5-0 lead in the first game, only to see the visitors wipe out the deficit in the first half itself in the second, it took a split-second shot from Rani to give the team the all-important winner even as the rest of the team rallied around her.

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The wins managed to soothe the wound the teams had been carrying since the disappointment at 2018 Asian Games. There were other highs as well for the men — win at Hockey Series Finals, runner-up at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup after going down to South Korea in the shootout and the Olympic Test Event in Tokyo that gave the team crucial first-hand experience of the venue, conditions and surface that they would face seven months from now.

An additional challenge for the players was getting used to coach Graham Reid’s style. The Australian, a former assistant to the legendary Ric Charlesworth when the Kookaburras ruled world hockey and who led them at Rio Olympics, took charge just before the men travelled to Australia and only had a few months to find his best combination for the qualifiers. Assisted by analytical coach Chris Ciriello whom he worked with as a player, Reid managed to find the sweet spot between youth and experience.

On the upgrade

It was a different battle for Sjoerd Marijne and his women. The Dutchman, appointed in 2017 and shunted to the men’s team midway before being moved back to lead the women in 2018, made sure the team went from strength to strength through the year, both physically and mentally.

Working with scientific advisor Wayne Lombard — credited unanimously by the girls for their vastly improved fitness, strength and stamina — Marijne brought the full weight of his experience as a motivational speaker to work on the mental toughness of the team. Unafraid to use psychological aids to understand them better, Marijne began with a winning series against Spain and Ireland that laid the template ahead of the Series Finals in Hiroshima. The women exacted revenge for the final defeat to Japan at Asiad and gathered enough points to ensure they played the Qualifiers at home. It made all the difference.

The juniors (both men and women), too, did well enough to merit attention. While the men began with a disastrous outing at the 8-Nations tournament in Spain — a tournament that saw chief coach Jude Felix being summarily dismissed, a vacancy that remains unfilled — they made up with a runner-up finish at the Sultan of Johor Cup.

The women, meanwhile, won the 3-Nations Tournament in Canberra towards year-end. The team also won the Cantor Fitzgerald U21 International 4-Nations Tournament, registering 10 wins and two draws in the 16 matches they played.