Hope is a dangerous thing and a modern-day Indian hockey fan will vouch for it. Since 1980, the last of India’s eight Olympic gold medals, India has fallen off the pinnacle of the sport... suffering one heartbreak after another.

India have failed to reach the semi-finals since that triumph 41 years ago and hit the lowest of lows in 2012 when the team finished last (12th) at the London Games. It was an edition when India excelled at the Olympics winning a record six medals, but hockey, a sport with which the nation was most associated with, was in the doldrums.

Pause, rewind, play: 1928-1956 – A brief history of Indian hockey’s golden era at the Olympics

Pause, rewind, play: Indian hockey legend Dhanraj Pillay and his Olympic heartbreaks

Indian men's hockey record at Olympics

Year Host city Position
1928  Amsterdam, Netherlands 1st
1932  Los Angeles, United States 1st
1936  Berlin, Germany 1st
1948  London, United Kingdom 1st
1952  Helsinki, Finland 1st
1956  Melbourne, Australia 1st
1960  Rome, Italy 2nd
1964  Tokyo, Japan 1st
1968  Mexico City, Mexico 3rd
1972  Munich, West Germany 3rd
1976  Montreal, Canada 7th
1980  Moscow, Soviet Union 1st
1984  Los Angeles, United States 5th
1988  Seoul, South Korea 6th
1992  Barcelona, Spain 7th
1996  Atlanta, United States 8th
2000  Sydney, Australia 7th
2004  Athens, Greece 7th
2012  London, United Kingdom 12th
2016  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 8th

Even with the fall from grace though, there have always been hopes from hockey at the Olympics; hopes of a miracle; of the team suddenly rolling back the years. But these hopes have, in the end, only contributed to making the defeats even harder to take.

And as India get ready for Tokyo 2020, the wait for a hockey medal enters its fifth decade and once again, there is hope. But after a long time, these hopes are somewhat merited.

India go into the Olympics ranked fifth in the FIH men’s charts. The team has beaten all the sides above them in the rankings at some point in the last five years and have a very well-balanced squad.

The average age of the team is 26.2 years which is fairly young. But coach Reid has preferred youngsters over certain experienced players for a purpose.

“The coach has packed the midfield and attacks with youngsters at the cost of some experience as he feels they will serve him better in Tokyo where the matches will be gruelling,” former Indian hockey player, MM Somaya who was part of India’s gold-medal winning team in 1980 told Scroll.in.

“In defence, though, he has gone with experience as he feels it’s an area where he needs it more than young legs,” he added.

Indian men's hockey squad for Tokyo 2020

Goalkeepers Defenders Midfielders Forwards
PR Sreejesh Rupinder Pal Singh Manpreet Singh (C) Dilpreet Singh
Surender Kumar Hardik Singh Gurjant Singh
Harmanpreet Singh Sumit Mandeep Singh
Birendra Lakra Nilakanta Sharma Lalit Upadhyay
Amit Rohidas Vivek Prasad Shamsher Singh

Preparing for Tokyo

The Indian team have been preparing at Bengaluru’s SAI centre ever since the pandemic hit last year. While the team hasn’t had too many competitive matches, they’ve got a lot of time on the training pitch that has helped coach Graham Reid to know the players better.

“I’ve been very happy, to be honest. What has been really good in these last 15 months is having the ability to be able to get to know the players. That’s something perhaps that often you don’t get to do as a coach,” Reid said.

“We’ve had a lot of time together. We spent a lot of time building the mentality of this group. The team got to know them very well. I got to know all their stories backward,” he added.

The coach has also focussed his efforts on getting India to score more goals, an area where they have been lacking a bit in recent times.

“Our attack hasn’t been the strongest and the focus of our work in the last year has been on improving on that front. The coaches have really worked well with us on our first touch, finishing and creating opportunities closer to goal,” forward Mandeep Singh told Scroll.in.

In the lead-up to the Games though, the focus has shifted on getting the players ready for the weather conditions in Tokyo.

“We are really focusing hard on fitness in our training as we believe that the fitness of the team will play a huge role due to the hot and challenging conditions in Tokyo. We are training in the afternoon especially to get acclimatized to the heat and humidity so that we are fit and ready when the actual tournament starts,” captain Manpreet Singh told Scroll.in.

The preparations have been good as far as Reid is concerned and it will all be about the players replicating what they have learnt in practice on the field once the matches begin.

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India men's performance in last Olympic cycle

Competition Matches Wins Draws Losses Position
2016-'17 FIH Hockey World League  6 1 2 3 3rd
2017 Asian Cup 7 6 1 0 1st
2018 Commonwealth Games 6 3 1 2 4th
2018 Asian Champions Trophy 7 5 2 0 1st
2018 Asian Games 7 6 1 0 3rd
2018 FIH World Cup 4 2 1 1 6th
2018-'19 FIH World Hockey Series 5 5 0 0 1st

Fit and strong

Under Reid, the team has functioned extremely well as a unit, conceding very few goals. Defined roles, improved stamina and a strong team structure have been some of the key aspects behind their success in recent years.

“In terms of defensive structure, this team is very sound and better than most teams in the recent past. They have hugely improved their fitness levels which allows them to run hard for the entire game,” Somaya said.

“Another aspect where they have stood out is their transitions from attack to defence and from defence to attack. That has been quite smooth and it’s a sign of a very good team,” he added.

However, there will be a focus on the performances of a few key individual players who can make the difference between a medal and another Olympics without success.

“Not many are talking about him, but Sreejesh will be very crucial. He has been exceptional but there have been times when he’s had a few lapses in concentration. With him being the only goalkeeper, he needs to inspire confidence among the teammates,” Somaya said.

“Manpreet will obviously be important as he leads by example but I feel deep defender Harmanpreet Singh will also be vital. He is a very competent player and can step out and play if there’s a need and his performance will be crucial. He is also a drag-flicker so it makes him even more important,” he added.

The team’s strong fundamentals and the emergence of leaders reflect in the team’s newfound mental strength. Unlike in the past, India haven’t been fazed by challenges posed by top teams.

“I think Indians don’t really understand how mentally resilient they are, how good they can be. Don’t underestimate the effect that will have when the chips are down in Tokyo. I think I take a lot of solace from that,” coach Reid said.

Coping with expectations

India would need every bit of that mental strength as their performances over the last few years have heightened the expectations. Anything less than a podium finish could be seen as a disappointment, especially if the team doesn’t even make the semi-finals for the first time in 41 years.

For a young team, dealing with the pressure will be key.

“In a competition like the Olympics and with extra expectations, there will be nerves in the first two games. The senior guys will have to step in to settle them as quickly as possible in the group as the younger players may find it harder. The coaching staff would also play a key role in that aspect,” Somaya said.

The team, though, are taking it positively and there hasn’t been an attempt to downplay it.

“We have won eight gold medals in hockey and so more than the pressure we feel proud that we have been so successful in this sport,” captain Manpreet said.

“That success inspires us to do well every time we step out on the field. The fact that we have gone so many years without one only adds to that motivation. The team is very determined to end the wait for a podium finish,” he added.

Manpreet’s words reflect the confidence in the team that is ready to take the burden of history in their stride. Now it remains to be seen if they can create some history of their own.

India men's team fixtures

Opponents Date Time
New Zealand July 24, 2021 6.30 AM IST
Australia July 25, 2021 3.00 PM IST
Spain July 27, 2021 6:30 AM IST
Argentina July 29, 2021 6.00 AM IST
Japan July 30, 2021 3.00 PM IST