2019 was the year of hope and optimism in Indian hockey

If 2018 was all about missed opportunities, then Indian hockey experienced a renewed sense of optimism this year with both the men’s and women’s teams qualifying for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. In 2019, the Indian teams grabbed most of the opportunities that came their way — the biggest among them was securing their Tokyo tickets.

In terms of high-level results, there weren’t any major tournaments lined up for the Indian teams in 2019 and they mostly competed in bilateral series and one-off International Hockey Federation (FIH) events. But the biggest takeaway from the year was the progression of some junior players into the senior fold under new chief coach Graham Reid, who took charge of the senior men’s team in April this year.

While top sides like Australia, world champions Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and Argentina were busy with the first edition of the FIH Pro League, the Indians largely played against lower-ranked sides this season.

For the men’s team, the year started with the FIH Series Finals in June in Bhubaneswar, where the Manpreet Singh-led side left no stone unturned and emerged victorious by thrashing South Africa 5-1 in the final to qualify for the FIH Olympic Qualifiers. In the lead up to the FIH Olympic Qualifiers, the Indian men participated in the Tokyo Olympics test event in August involving hosts Japan, Malaysia, and New Zealand. The Indian men again came out victorious, defeating the Black Sticks 5-0 in the summit clash.

They then went on an exposure tour to Belgium to play five matches — three against reigning world champions Belgium and two against Spain. The Manpreet-led side passed with flying colours beating Belgium 2-0, 2-1 and 5-1 and then vanquished Spain 6-1 and 5-1.

But the biggest test awaited them in the year-ending final round of Olympic Qualifiers where the team enjoyed a relatively easy outing, handing Russia an 11-3 drubbing on aggregate to seal their Tokyo tickets.

The Indian men’s hockey team’s biggest gain this year was the emergence of some talented fresh faces. With no big tournaments lined up, India tested a number of youngsters under Reid and the move paid rich dividends, throwing up talents like Vivek Sagar Prasad, Hardik Singh and many more.

In rankings, India started the year in the fifth spot and managed to maintain that throughout the season. Despite the consistency, the Indians will have to make drastic improvements in the remaining eight months if they wish to break their Olympic medal jinx.

“We have nine months (before the Olympics). Just get better and better, that’s our plan. Focus on the process, and the result will take care of itself,” Reid had said after the Olympic Qualifiers in Bhubaneswar in November. “That’s what we need to bring to this team and give it a big shot (in Tokyo),” added the 55-year-old Australian, who was part of the team that won silver at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The Indian women’s team also deserves applause for its fine show this year. Just like their male counterparts, the Rani Rampal-led side held on to their ninth spot in the international standings throughout the year. But the highlight was the rise of two young players — Sharmila Devi and Lalremsiami, who was nominated for the FIH Rising Star of the Year award.

The year also provided chief coach Sjoerd Marijne an entire season to work with the women’s team and get his combinations right.

The Indian women started the year with tours of Malaysia and Korea, where they upstaged their opponents to gain the much-needed confidence ahead of the FIH Series Finals in June. The tours put India in a good position for the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima and they got the better of Uruguay, Poland, Fiji, Chile and hosts Japan to emerge victorious and seal their place in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers.

Then came the Olympic Test event in August where they matched world No.2 Australia and got the better of China and Japan to clinch the title. The Indian women carried their form to the all-important Olympic Qualifiers and rode on skipper Rampal’s brilliance to outwit USA 6-5 on aggregate to seal only their third Olympic spot ever.

Just like the senior sides, the junior teams — both boys and girls — too weren’t involved in any major tournaments and mostly participated in invitationals besides a few tours.