43 years and counting, India's hockey team chase World Cup immortality

Hockey India

Forty three years is a long time. In sport, that would count as an eon.

That's how long it's been since India climbed on to the podium of a hockey World Cup. This discomfiting truth is cushioned by India playing host to the tournament for the third time in 14 editions this year.

The familiar setting, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh reckons, is an obvious advantage. At 30, he's something of an elder statesman in a team that has seven members from the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning side for this tournament.

The four pools of as many teams each are packed with the mightiest of sides in the sport - Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Argentina, Belgium - and talk of Indian hopes dwell around a quarterfinal passage. India are placed in a relatively lightweight Pool C alongside South Africa, Canada and Belgium and will have two shots at qualifying for the quarterfinals. If they top their pool, they directly progress to the last-eight stage while crossovers between the second and third-placed teams in each pool will be played to determine the other four quarterfinalists.

Sreejesh, the only player in the Indian team who will be making his third World Cup appearance, doesn't have a big laundry list of ambitions. He's just sticking to the minimal. "Quarterfinals are what we are looking at and aiming for," he says. "The rest could be anyone's game on that day."

Since 2002, either Germany or Australia have won the tournament. India's only title came in 1975 after beating Pakistan in the final. Their best finish thereafter has been fifth at the 1982 & 1994 tournament editions.

And it's not been a great year for Indian hockey. Their outings at big-ticket events like the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games this year fell short of expected results although the Asian Champions Trophy title managed to salvage some of that bitter aftertaste.

In order to freshen things up, seniors in the side have been whittled down to a handful with Sardar Singh calling time on his career and the likes of SV Sunil, Rupinder Pal Singh, and Ramandeep Singh being left out for fitter, younger legs and fresher faces.

It's a call, coach Harendra Singh says, which had to be taken with a measure of emotional detachment. "We are playing the World Cup, not a four-nation invitational. I think what has held us back is emotional choices. We can't go back in time once this tournament is over and reverse the result. So to pick players who are injured or not fully fit wouldn't have made sense. Having said that what I keep telling the boys is to leave the pressure of results to me. They should just go out there and perform."

The absence of a few senior boys may have taken some glamour off the forward line, but former captain V Baskaran says where India still has some catching up to do is in steeling up minds. "I'm worried with all these big teams around. It's not skill that we fall behind in, but mental strength. You see sides like Australia and Germany and you know what makes them champions is how they handle match situations mentally. At the Asian Games for our players to get a card and be reduced to a 10-man team in the dying minutes was totally avoidable. Those are the landmines we need to sidestep."

India will play South Africa on the opening day of the tournament on November 28 and will run into their first tough opponent in Rio Olympics silver medalists Belgium on December 2. "The goal should be to top the group," Baskaran says. "If you're second or third the ifs and buts can be tricky. But a quarterfinal spot for India shouldn't be too tough I think."

The team, captained by Manpreet Singh, is coming off a 40-day camp at the venue in Bhubaneswar, which has given them fair amount of time to take a closer look at the problem areas - defensive structure, penalty corner conversions and handling aerial balls.

As the senior-most member in the side, Sreejesh places the onus of holding the unit together and keeping his teammates motivated on himself. "Off the field, it doesn't matter who's the captain. As a senior I have to be able do what I should be doing."

Lessons delivered at the Asian Games semifinals by Malyasia, a team who on paper weren't expected to send the continental powerhouse packing out of the tournament haven't been forgotten. Odds were stacked against the South East side who'd up until then lost 10 of their 11 encounters against India, but the favourites unraveled in the sudden death.

"World sport is getting more competitive by the year," says Harendra, "One example I often use these days to tell the boys why we shouldn't take any team lightly is the football World Cup. While everyone was busy making predictions for all the favorite teams, Croatia sneaked into the final. Traditionally also I think lower-ranked teams have been able to trouble us in hockey. The format in this tournament too gives room to all teams to stake a chance."

Harendra is also the kind of coach who believes that much of what pans out on the field on a match day has to do with how the team functions off it on a regular camp day. At that, he's an exacting taskmaster and has some house rules laid down for every member in the squad, including himself. He prefers to refer to them as 'laws' to stress on their sacrosanct character. "I love joking around with the players, but they know when it comes to certain things I really mean business."

Among the practices that hold up a cautionary signpost of severe consequences in case of a breach include the 'no mobile phones in dining halls, meeting rooms and training pitches' and '10pm lights out' regulation. "If four or more players are sitting around talking about the sport, they can't switch on their phones. Everyone should be dressed uniformly in team kits and have all their meals together. Of course there are free days thrown in between when players can go out and meet their friends and family but they can't stay out beyond 8pm," says Harendra, "Without discipline, we can't expect results."

"For me, this is not about us just playing the World Cup. Forty three years is a long time to go without a title. This is our chance to create history."