India eye title at Hockey Series Finals to ease path to Tokyo 2020

Hockey India

Striker Ramandeep Singh makes a return to the men's national team for the first time in nearly a year, with drag-flick specialist Rupinder Pal Singh dropped from India's squad for the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar, which starts on June 6.

India play Russia in their opening encounter of what will be the first step towards qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. At world number five, India are the highest-ranked in the competition, and are only likely to get any resistance from 16th-ranked South Africa and 18th-ranked Japan, both of whom are in the other pool and will meet them only in the semi-finals at the earliest. India themselves have to play Poland (21), Russia (22) and Uzbekistan (55). Mexico and U.S. complete Pool B, and India would start as favourites to win, which will give them home billing for the two Olympic qualifying matches, scheduled between October 26 and November 4 this year.

What is the qualification procedure for men?

Right. This bit needs some explanation, as the procedure has been overhauled for the 2020 Olympics, where 12 teams will be involved in competition.

Japan, as hosts, are also the continental champions for Asia, and will be joined by the continental champions of Oceania, Africa, Europe, and the winners of the Pan American Games, all of whom will be determined by September 8, 2019.

These five teams will be joined by seven teams, who will come from Olympic qualifying matches between 14 teams. The qualifiers will be held over two matches between teams that will be drawn up as opponents on the basis of world ranking -- highest against lowest, and so on. Of the 14 teams, four will be the teams making up the semi-finals of the FIH Pro League 2019, six will be the top-two teams from the three FIH Series Finals events in Malaysia, India and France.

Each Series Finals will involve two pools of four teams each, with pool stages leading up to semis and finals, and the two finalists progressing to the Olympic qualifiers. Japan are part of the Series Finals in India, and that means if Japan finish in the top-two of their event, then only one other team will qualify further, with the other slot determined on the basis of world rankings. Thus, the remaining four slots -- or five, should Japan win gold or silver in Bhubaneswar -- will go to the next four highest-ranked teams that have not already qualified through the continental championships, the Pro League or the Series Finals.

Is qualification any different for women then?

Actually, the process will be identical, since Japan also won the Asian Games gold for women in 2018.

In the women's case, India are drawn alongside Poland, Chile, Russia and hosts Japan in the Series Finals that get underway in Hiroshima on June 15, the same day that the men's Series Finals in Bhubaneswar come to an end. Yet again, India must ensure they finish in the top-two to qualify further through the Series Finals route, or win the tournament if Japan make the final as well.

Will all be lost if they fail to win the Series Finals?

Not really, since India are ranked fifth in men's hockey and ninth among women. This would mean that they could still make the qualifying rounds by virtue of their world rankings, once the Pro League semi-finalists and top-two finishers from each Series Finals are identified.

However, being last on that pecking order could mean a tricky draw, facing a higher-ranked opponent away in the two qualifying matches. India would make their journey through to the Olympics easier by simply winning their respective Series Finals tournaments.