Indian Hockey's Road to Rio Reaches Champions Trophy
File image of Indian players celebrating after scoring a goal. (Getty Images)
The sticks are well oiled, bodies well rested and preparations in full swing. Indian hockey's Road to Rio, touchwood, hasn't seen many potholes; but a major dry run awaits in just over a week's time.
India will see two hockey teams, not one, in the athletes' parade in Rio as the women too booked a historic Olympic berth. That, in fact, was one of the biggest fillips the nation's once most-loved sport received.
But what remains a harsh truth is the fact that any practical hopes of a memorable outing in Rio rest only with the men, who will walk through a scanner in the Champions Trophy.
The team, though, has come a long way since then - with the 2014 Asian Games gold resting proudly on the chest; not to forget the bronze medal in the FIH Hockey World League that ended a 33-year medal drought in a globally-contested tournament.
After the Olympics and the World Cup, Champions Trophy is undoubtedly the third most highly-rated tournament in the world. And though it faces an uncertain future after a recent FIH diktat, a Champions Trophy gold is always up there in a player and country's profile.
Undoubtedly, it was the 2014 Asiad gold that lifted Rio hopes of a nation that once bathed in the glory of its hockey.
"Ever since the Asian Games gold, the team has started to believe in itself again," team's senior defender VR Raghunath said a few days back.
Raghunath's thoughts are echoed by striker SV Sunil, who has been promoted as the team's vice captain for the Champions Trophy, for which captain Sardar Singh and defender Rupinderpal Singh have been rested.
"Our approach [to Olympics] is more systematic this time; we are on the right track," Sunil has said.
"Last time [London 2012], we paid more attention to fitness. This time we are focusing on overall development as a team and the training has a lot to do with discipline and team spirit," the 27-year-old told.
Hockey India selectors and coach Roelant Oltmans have been ringing in the changes over the last few tournaments, allowing themselves a chance to test youngsters and rest seniors.
On those lines, the impressive Harjeet Singh and Harmanpreet Singh got an extension for the Champions Trophy, alongside Pradeep Mor and PR Sreejesh's understudy Vikas Dahiya, who replaces Harjot Singh.
A medal in London will be a sweet way to get over the haunting memories of 2012 Games, where India finished last. And coach Oltmans wants to return with a minimum top-three finish.
"Everybody knows we are good in the knockout stage, but Champions Trophy this year will be slightly different and we need to finish top two to play the final and be top four to play for bronze. It will be interesting to see how our players face the challenge.
"Our realistic expectation is to finish in the top three," the Dutchman said.
The tournament will begin with a round-robin phase, followed by playoffs to decide the six positions.
PR Sreejesh (captain), Vikas Dahiya, Pradeep Mor, VR Raghunath, Kothajit Singh, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh, Danish Mujtaba, Chinglensana Singh, Manpreet Singh, SK Uthappa, Devinder Walmiki, Harjeet Singh, Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, SV Sunil (vice-captain), Akashdeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah.
June 10: IND v GER (2030 IST)
June 11: IND v GB (2030 IST)
June 13: IND v BEL (2030 IST)
June 14: IND v KOR (2030 IST)
June 16: IND v AUS (2030 IST)
(Quotes Courtesy: PTI)