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India look to build on gains and eye an encore at season opening Asia Cup

Vandana Katariya is the first Indian woman to score a hockey hat trick at the Olympics. AP Photo/John Locher

The last time the Indian women's hockey team competed in the Asia Cup in 2017, not only did they win the tournament for the first time in 13 years, it also proved to be a result that would be the marker of a special Olympic cycle. Over the course of the tournament, the side qualified for the women's World Cup, where they narrowly missed out on a semifinal berth. That result generated self belief which was taken to the Asian Games, where the team won silver. The next year the team would qualify for the Olympics. That run was culminated by a fairytale Olympic campaign in which the team finished fourth.

Ahead of their first game of the 2022 Asia Cup against Malaysia on Friday evening in Muscat, India wouldn't mind a similar result as they look to kick start the latest Olympic cycle in earnest. Although India did technically play the Asian Champions Trophy last year, a slew of COVID-19 cases meant that the team spent most of the tournament with the exception of the opening game, in quarantine in Korea.

Start of a busy season

Back in 2017, the tournament would have been Sjoerd Marijne's first tournament with the team. And although he was bumped to the men's squad just a couple of weeks before the competition, the gold medal-winning side in Kakamigahara was for all purposes his team. As things stand, this will be coach Janneke Schopman's first full tournament in charge of the squad. And she'll want to begin on a good note. The Asia Cup marks the start of a very busy 2022 season.

Three days after the medal matches of the Asia Cup are played, the squad will be making its debut in the FIH Pro League. Just ten days after the Pro League, India could be playing the World Cup in Netherlands (They'd have to finish in the top two of a group that features Japan, Malaysia and Singapore in the Asia Cup to do so). Within a couple of weeks of the World Cup, the team will be in Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games, and a month after that will be jetting off to Hangzhou for the Asian Games, where they could qualify for the Paris Games by winning gold.

Putting theory to practice

With international competitions coming thick and fast, there will be little time for the team to train over the next few months. Any adjustments will have to be made on the fly. While the team will obviously want to do well at the Asia Cup, it will also serve as a critical testbed for Schopman to see how the areas the team has been working on have been put into practice.

Over the past few months, although the team hasn't been competing, they have been working on adding onto the base built by former coach Marijne. That meant a continued emphasis on fitness to allow them to play a fast-paced game but also focus on off the ball movement. Schopman has said that while the team needs to create more goal-scoring opportunities, they also needed to keep the defence tight.

Tough games

While the team is expected to finish in the top two - both the games against Malaysia and Singapore are expected to be fairly straightforward games - the league matches against Japan and potential clashes in the knock outs against South Korea and China will likely be a tougher ask. For all of India's recent growth as a team, Japan is the more consistent squad. They have beaten India in the big tournaments too, such as in the final of the 2018 Asian Games and are also coming off a gold medal at the Asian Champions Trophy last month.

While the Chinese only finished third at the same tournament, they are capable of much better performances. At the Olympics earlier in the year, they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the quarterfinals, beating New Zealand in the group stage but being edged out by the same team on goal difference. South Korea have been inconsistent over the last few years but as a second place finish at the Asian Champions Trophy - which included a win over China - suggests, they are capable of pushing the best in the field at Muscat.

Absence of Rani

Adding to the challenge for the Indian squad is the fact that they will be going into the competition without talismanic midfielder Rani Rampal, who has been a mainstay in the team for the better part of the last decade. While Rampal is currently recovering from a shoulder injury, the team will be helmed by goalkeeper Savita Punia.

However, despite Rampal's absence, the team is not short of experience - striker Vandana Katariya, with 249 caps, goes into the tournament as the most experienced player across teams. Punia too is capable of heroics of her own - she was the star of India's win in this tournament in 2017, where the title was decided on penalties. She's banking on the support of the rest of the squad who have largely been together for the past couple of years. "The best part about this team is that many of us have been playing together for a long time and I feel this experience and team camaraderie will give us the edge over other teams," she said ahead of the team's opener.