If you were in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday evening, the Kalinga Stadium was the place to be. The complex is fetching: crumbling stands revamped at huge costs, trees decked up in twinkling fairy lights, the walls in the vicinity done up in hockey-themed murals. It's a perfect backdrop for scores of selfie-seekers. Some lucky thousands would make their way inside the venue itself, to witness the opening ceremony of the 2018 Hockey World Cup.
It's a glitzy ceremony. Bollywood stars Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit are in attendance. Tomorrow in Cuttack, Salman Khan will charm the crowds in a World Cup-themed spectacle. Shah Rukh's association with hockey is relatively clear, by virtue of starring in one of the most iconic Indian sports films (Chak de India). Salman's is a little tenuous and Madhuri's even more so. Perhaps there's something the Indian team and these stars have in common. While there's still plenty of affection for them, there is also the grudging realisation that their best days are probably behind them. Yet, it won't stop the true believers from clinging on to hope, the odd moment of success suggesting a corner has been turned.
Things are good, Indian captain Manpreet Singh will remind you. "We have done well in the last two or three years. We have won the Hockey World League bronze, then the Champions trophy silver".
The team also seems to have put behind the medal-less Commonwealth Games and the failure to defend their Asian Games gold this year. "We have forgotten the Asian Games (where India finished third). Maybe it's time you did too," says head coach Harendra Singh in the pre-match press conference.
Perhaps it's too early to be so cynical for the fans, too. For the moment, with all the celebrity-crooning, fire-cracking and laser-lighting on offer, things aren't looking too shabby. India are also placed in a relatively lightweight group and should make it to the crossover stage. The format also means that even if they finish third in their pool, they still have a fairly good chance of advancing to the quarterfinals, which goalkeeper PR Sreejesh says is the team's primary target.
There's also the fact that the hosts will get their tournament underway against South Africa on Wednesday. India have lost just once in 13 meetings against South Africa, the lowest ranked side in the competition. The African side is here by virtue of being continental champions, but their real challenge has been getting to the competition venue.
Over the past year, they have played all of nine competitive matches (five at the Commonwealth Games and four against France) and their trip to Bhubaneswar was only made possible after each player contributed 10000 Rand to the travel pot. India should begin favourites against a side featuring the likes of Tim Drummond (pilot), Owen Mvimbi (HR professional), Keenan Horne (law student) and Austin Smith (teacher), and which is coached by Mark Hopkins (unpaid).
Harendra puts any further doubts to rest during his bold press conference: "Everyone is a pundit here but did any one of us predict that Ireland would reach the Women's World Cup final and Croatia would make it to FIFA WC final?"
It's a stirring performance. Harendra is on unsteady ground following the Asian Games debacle. Here in Bhubaneswar with sacred threads jostling for space on his wrist, he tackles that situation head on. "(In) the future you don't know what will happen. You don't even know if I will be there when I leave this room or not."
If this was anything other than a staid press conference room, there would be whistles at this point.
There are statistics on India's side too -- they scored from 23 of their 59 penalty corners at the Asian Games, although that number was bloated by goal gluts against the minnows. Harendra says the team has worked on improving the injection and trapping, and thinks they can improve on that number. "We are very confident of achieving a 24-34 percent conversion for the competition."
Then there's the fact that the hosts have one of the youngest, and most inexperienced sides in the tournament. Injuries to SV Sunil and Ramandeep Singh, the unexpected exclusion of drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh and Sardar Singh's sudden retirement has left a huge vacuum. The team has plugged these gaps with young candidates. Harendra doesn't agree with that one either. "Anyone chosen to wear this shirt," he says pulling on his red practise jersey, "has enough experience to play".
Then comes the kicker to settle the argument. Harendra reminds everyone of the time India beat Germany at the 2009 Punjab Gold Cup. "Everyone thought that we had just beaten Germany so when the (2010) Hockey World Cup was held at home, we would do great. But everyone knows what happened. (India finished eighth and Germany were runners up)." He then explained the link further. "The average age of that German side was 22.7 years. The average age of this Indian side is 23.4 years."
As straws which to grab onto go, this one is pretty frayed. Even Harendra realises as much, adding a disclaimer. "Of course this doesn't mean we are going to perform the same way too".
Yet, it's likely enough to sustain the hockey tragics for at least three more weeks. As Shah Rukh would put it, "Chak De, India!"