India starts Olympic preparations in right earnest

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Constantly under the spotlight with the invisible burden of history, the Indian men’s hockey team will take its first step towards yet another Olympic dream with game one of the double-header against the Netherlands in its Hockey Pro League opener here on Saturday.

The upcoming six months would be the most comprehensive Olympic preparation for the team in recent times, both in quality and quantity. Having withdrawn from the inaugural edition of the competition in 2019, 2020 would see the team take on the world’s top-eight teams in similar back-to-back games in the run-up to the Tokyo Games. The coming weekend would be the first test in that series, in a format the team hasn’t played too often.

The last time India played in such a format competitively was during the Olympic Qualifiers in November 2019. But the opposition Russia would hardly have posed the kind of challenge that the Netherlands will. Also with most European players used to this format in their club engagements, the visitors, for once, should be in a more familiar territory than the hosts.

Crossing the divide

The previous time the two met, the Dutch came back from being a goal down to end India’s World Cup campaign in the quarterfinals in 2018. India coach Graham Reid, then, was on the opposition bench as deputy to Max Caldas and would be the insider in the Indian management. In the year since then, India has had outings against teams largely ranked lower while the Netherlands finished third in the inaugural HPL. Adding to the excitement — or pressure — would be the fact there would be a winner every game with drawn matches heading into shootouts.

Little to separate

Despite the general impression, there is little to separate the two sides in recent times with India winning four to the Netherlands’ five with a draw in the preceding 10 outings. The difference, though, is in the fact that while India’s wins against top sides have remained occasional high points in its kitty, the Netherlands has gone on to make the podium of major events more often than not.

That experience of being able to grab the big moments would be the biggest advantage for this Dutch side. India captain Manpreet Singh admitted that most of the team’s recent games could have gone either way but it was the ability to take the half-chances that made the difference. On Saturday and Sunday, it would be more of the same. Reid, across the line now, would be hoping to finish on the winning side yet again.

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