The Indian men's and women's hockey teams had started the year with an aim to finish on the podium at 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games that would end the country's 40-year medal drought at the worlds biggest sports extravaganza, but the Olympics were postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19. India last won a hockey gold medal in hockey at 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Since then, the men's team has participated in eight Olympic Games without making it to the podium. In Rio, the men's team finished a dismal eighth.
The men's team, which rose to fourth spot in the International Hockey Federation's (FIH) world rankings this year, maintained that position with 2,063.78 points in the year-end list and would enter 2021 as the fourth-ranked team.
Before the hockey activities came to a halt in March due to Covid-19, the Indian men's hockey team took part in its maiden FIH Pro League campaign, playing six games against formidable teams like reigning world champions Belgium, Olympic silver medallists the Netherlands, and Australia.
The Indian team had made an emphatic start to their FIH Pro League campaign with a 5-2 and 3-3 (3-1) wins against the Netherlands, followed by a 2-1 win and 3-4 loss against Belgium, and 3-4 loss and 2-2 (3-1) win against Australia, before the Covid-19 pandemic halted the competition.
After that, the players were confined in a bio-secure environment at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) facility in Bengaluru where they carried out their training once the rules were relaxed by the government in August.
During this time, six of the players, including captain Manpreet Singh, got infected with the virus. Apart from him, Surender Kumar, Jaskaran Singh, Varun Kumar and Krishan Pathak had also been diagnosed with Covid-19.
"I think we had read and heard so much about the pandemic being a deadly disease, the first few days was stressful and anxious after testing positive for the virus. Although I have been in some of the most difficult match-situations as a professional hockey player, I had never felt this stressed," Mandeep had said about his experience in quarantine. "I was never taken away in an ambulance, never been seriously injured either. So, this phase was a new experience for me.".
India's campaign in the ongoing Pro League would restart on April 10 and 11 with a tie against Argentina away from home. India will then play Great Britain on May 8 and 9, again away from home, before travelling to Spain where they play on May 12 and 13. They then face Germany away on May 18 and 19 and will finally play a home tie on May 29 and 30 against New Zealand.
Skipper Manpreet believes back-to-back matches will be the right litmus test for the team before the Tokyo Olympics.
"I feel after the four-week gap between our matches against Argentina and Great Britain, we will play back-to-back matches almost every weekend right until the end of May and that's the kind of momentum we are looking for ahead of the Olympic Games," he had said.
"We will test our body and mind during this time to see how we can cope the pressure of playing back-to-back high intensity games and manage the load well. This will be ideal test for us before the Olympics."
On the other hand, the women's team made only its second Olympic appearance in 2016 in Rio, but finished a poor 12th. The team, which qualified for the 2020 Olympics last year, were expected to make a mark in Tokyo. But the Olympics were postponed, and will now be held from July 23 to August 8.
The women's team was ranked ninth with 1,543 points in the year-end rankings. The first time they achieved a high of ninth position was in 2018.
The women failed to qualify for the Pro League. They did not play any competitive games in 2020, and travelled to New Zealand for a five-match practice tour in January. The Rani Rampal-led side registered win against New Zealand Development Squad (4-0) in their opening match. The Indian eves then lost two matches 1-2 and 0-1 to the New Zealand national team. After that, India won 1-0 win against Great Britain. In the last match of the tour, India defeated New Zealand 3-0, ending their tour on a high.
Following the tour, like the men's team, they also took part in the national camp at SAI Bengaluru centre amid the Covid-19 pandemic and focussed on their fitness and sharpening skill as part of their Olympic preparation.
Indian women's team will begin their Olympic campaign against world champions the Netherlands next year. Though India has not faced the Dutch team in any major tournament in the recent past, they are aware of how the team plays.
With both chief coach Sjoerd Marijne as well as analytical coach Janneke Schopman are from the Netherlands, the duo is well-versed with the playing style of the Dutch national team.
"We have not played the Netherlands national team in the recent past but we follow their matches closely and we end up talking to coaches Sjoerd and Janneke about the team's playing style," vice-captain Savita has said.
"Since both coaches are from the Netherlands, they have a lot of knowledge about how the team plays. Netherlands are undoubtedly aggressive and tactically very sound. Our first match at the Olympics will surely be challenging," she added.
Former India captain Dhanraj Pillay believes the Indian women's team can win the elusive Olympic medal next year.
"We have one of the best captains in Rani. I think Rani and goal-keeper Savita can take the team to a podium finish. The team is working really hard, preparing for the Olympics, and am confident of a good show," he has said.
And going by the performance of both the men's and women's teams in the past two years, fans can safely expect a good show in Tokyo next year.