India on the right track to Rio

The eight-time Olympic champion won many a heart with its superb display against the World champion, Australia, in the final that went into penalty shoot-outs. The silver medal in the Champions Trophy should enhance India’s confidence and make it a medal contender in the Rio Olympics.

Australia players pose for a group photo, as they wait for India's protest to be heard after the Champions Trophy final at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. Australia's 3-1 victory was finally upheld by the FIH technical committee.   -  Getty Images

Indian players celebrate with their medals after finishing second.   -  Getty Images

2014: The Indian hockey team bags the gold medal in the Asian Games, silver medal in the Commonwealth Games, and finishes in the top-four in the Champions Trophy.

2015: India wins the bronze medal in the Hockey World League — the nation’s first medal in a major tournament after a gap of 33 years

2016: India secures its second medal — a silver — in the Champions Trophy. It is the nation’s best ever performance in the tournament

India’s steady rise in world hockey in recent times underlines the fact that the team is on the right track, and winning the silver medal in the Champions Trophy after pushing the mighty Australians to the brink in the final in London was no fluke.

> Read: Champions Trophy Statistics

It was a superb performance by India, which bettered its bronze medal-winning act of 1982.

Critics might argue that the team had conceded more goals than it scored and suffered two defeats against two victories, apart from one draw in the league stage. However, the most noticeable aspect of India’s showing was the team’s fighting performances. It ran a few top teams close in the tournament.

In the league match against Australia, where it lost by two goals, India was without some of its accomplished players including Sardar Singh, Rupinderpal Singh and Birendra Lakra.

The eight-time Olympic champion won many a heart with its superb display against the World champion, Australia, in the final that went into penalty shoot-outs (India lost 3-1).

The fact that India maintained its composure and fought back in crunch situations held the team in good stead, as it drew against Germany and posted victories against England and Korea. Even in defeats, against Belgium and Australia, the team showed resilience.

India’s young brigade, including striker Mandeep Singh and drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh, took responsibility in crucial phases. Experienced campaigners such as S. V. Sunil and V. R. Raghunath played their roles well while the seasoned P. R. Sreejesh excelled in the goal with some fabulous saves that boosted the team’s confidence.

The silver medal in the Champions Trophy should enhance India’s confidence manifold and make it a medal contender in the Rio Olympics. > Read: Sreejesh in shoot out

Roelant Oltmans’ observation said it all. “Unfortunately we lost the finals on shoot-outs but we won confidence on our way to Rio,” said the India coach on Twitter. With a changed format, the Champions Trophy, scheduled to be held in Argentina but moved to London, was important for five of the six participating teams (excluding Korea) ahead of the Rio Olympics. Accordingly, each of the teams made the most of it to prepare for the Olympics.

Australia, which won its 14th Champions Trophy title, could not have asked for a better outing ahead of the Rio Games. The team might have excluded star players, Jamie Dwyer and Mark Knowles, and missed the services of the well-known penalty corner specialist, Chris Ciriello, due to an injury during the tournament, but it had adequate replacements to tame the best of opponents. The Aussies, who showed depth, would take heart from their gold medal-winning effort ahead of the Olympics.

One of the powerhouses of the sport for a long time, Germany was unable to retain the Champions Trophy title in London, but the team has the experience and wherewithal to bounce back in the Olympics. The reigning Olympic champion, which arrived in London without Moritz Furste and Christopher Ruhr, would not be too disappointed with the bronze medal it won. Rather, Germany would be determined to step up its game at the Olympics.

Host Great Britain, which finished fourth, is a powerful hockey nation. That the team drew its matches against formidable rivals such as Australia, Germany and Belgium, indicates Great Britain’s strength. With old warhorses such as Barry Middleton, Ashley Jackson and Adam Dixon serving the team well, Great Britain stands a good chance of winning a medal in the Olympics.

Notwithstanding its fifth place finish, Belgium is one of the youngest and competent sides in world hockey currently. Having an able midfielder in John-John Dohmen and a lethal striker in Tom Boon, Belgium, which was the runner-up in the HWL Final last year, has been a force to reckon with and will remain in the hunt for a memorable result in Rio.

Despite providing some high quality matches, the Champions Trophy turned out to be a big let down for the medal-winning teams. After the final, India lodged a protest against a goal by Australia in the penalty shoot-out, and the International Hockey Federation (FIH) technical committee took several hours to arrive at a decision. This denied the top three teams the chance to receive their medals in front of the spectators and presented an extremely bizarre situation.

It was a blot on the FIH’s organisational skills before the Olympics and invited criticisms from former players.

Australian legend Ric Charlesworth said the episode, which saw the FIH officials taking back the trophy from the pitch, “did not look good” and “should have been quickly settled.”

For the 1980 Moscow Olympics gold medallist, M. K. Kaushik, the incident was bad publicity for the sport. “The FIH must perfect the organisational aspect of holding events. Umpiring has to be top class. Had it been an Olympic qualifying event, it would have created a huge uproar. Even though some top professionals were on duty, they could not take decisions quickly,” said Kaushik.