W2W4: India start favourites for women's Series Finals title

The Indian team celebrates a goal against Ireland during a 1-1 draw in a Test match in Murcia, Spain in February 2019. ARNAU MARTÍNEZ BENAVENT

An improved conversion from the forwards in recent matches, and the emergence of some younger talent over the last couple of years, will be key to India's chances of winning the FIH Series Finals, where the women begin their campaign against Uruguay on June 15 in Hiroshima, Japan.

India need to reach the final of the eight-team tournament to confirm their berth in the year-end Olympic qualifiers for Tokyo 2020. With a world ranking of nine, they could still make the qualifiers without a top-two finish at the Series Finals, but might then have to face a higher-ranked opponent in the two qualifying matches, scheduled between October 25 and November 3.

What has India's form been like?

While India haven't been a part of the Pro League for 2019, coach Sjoerd Marijne's India have had a busy schedule with Test matches across the globe. In January and February, they were in Spain for matches against seventh-ranked Spain and eighth-ranked Ireland, who were also runners-up at the 2018 World Cup. This was followed by a tour of Malaysia (22) in April, and 11th-ranked South Korea in May. India were unbeaten in terms of series scores, winning against Ireland, Malaysia and South Korea. They lost just two matches out of 14 across these tours, and registered eight wins.

Marijne sought the help of former Australian striker and two-time World Cup winner Glenn Turner to work with the forwards at the start of the year, and the results of that have been visible in the 14 matches played since. India have scored 32 goals, and a 4-0 defeat to South Korea in their last match, a dead rubber after having won two of three Tests, remains the only match where they failed to score.

At the Series Finals, India are in the same pool as Poland (23) and Fiji (59), besides Uruguay (24). The big challenge is expected in the semi-finals, where they might come up against 14th-ranked Japan or Chile (16). It would not be a surprise to see India crowned Series Finals champions on June 23, and anything less than making the final would be an upset result.

The players to watch

Rani Rampal will lead India's attack, but 2019 has been a year where she has had injury concerns and only returned during the tour of South Korea after having picked up a knock in Spain.

Thankfully, India has found goals from other sources -- Navjot Kaur and Navneet Kaur have been prolific, as too has Lalremsiami. At 19, Siami recently completed 50 international caps for India and has become a reliable finisher, something the Indians were always seeking to take the pressure off captain Rani. She has kicked on from an impressive maiden World Cup in England last summer and should be the key to getting goals in Hiroshima.

The experience will come in from goalkeeper Savita Punia, striker Vandana Katariya and midfielder Sushila Chanu, who have close to 600 international caps between the three of them. The Series Finals will be the first major competition for Sushila after knee and ankle problems dogged her after the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where India missed out on a bronze.

Watch out also for Salima Tete, 17, who was Siami's teammate during India's silver-medal finish at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires last year. Marijne speaks highly of Salima's pace, which marks her out as a natural athlete. Since her debut during the Spain tour, India have maintained a clean sheet in five of the 14 matches played, and only conceded more than two goals in three of those matches.

If India can combine their flair up front with the newfound solidity at the back, the Series Finals title will be theirs to lose.