New Delhi: The lift that Indian hockey needs may arrive this weekend in the form of both the men and women teams qualifying for the Olympics. But when the summit is in sight, the last climb is the hardest. That's where India are going to be tested, and tested hard.
A week ago when it all began, the men started as favourites and the women second best. With two days left in the qualifiers, it's no longer a hypothesis. The men stand unbeaten and the women have to beat the best – the South Africans.
The history of Indian women hockey turns pale when compared to the eight-time Olympic gold-medallist men. Forget about an Olympic medal, the Indian eves have never qualified in the Games' 112-year history, with their only participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics coming through an invitation. They have never qualified and will create history if they do it on Saturday.
The women\'s team is on the cusp of a first Olympic qualification while the men are looking good for a return after missing in 2008.
The men had been the big daddies of hockey until 1980, bagging eleven Olympic medals in all, including eight golds and an unbeaten run from 1928 to 1956. But the descent since 1980 stooped as low as missing the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when India failed to qualify. It was one match – the final against Great Britain – that mattered in the 2008 qualifiers, and it's down to the final again in 2012, against France on Sunday.
Rather than talking about what caused that descent, let's talk about how Indian hockey can hit ascendancy this weekend.
While the women are up against it, the passage for men is not as hard. But what none of the four finalists can argue is that it's down to just one off day, one bad match to ruin the planned celebrations.
The women's road to the finals took off shakily. A 1-1 draw against the lowly Ukraine set them back, but the campaign got back on track with a 4-1 win over Canada. Poland proved to be an easy game for the Indian girls, who came out winners with a comfortable 3-0 scoreline. But the fourth league encounter against the South Africans – ranked 12th - tested India to the hilt. The hosts, ranked 13th, lost that match 2-5 - which turned their last round-robin fixture against the Italians into a virtual semi-final.
Backed by a partisan crowd, India managed to eke out a narrow 1-0 win over Italy to fix another date with their nemesis South Africa, who are unbeaten in the tournament having won four and drawn one match. And coach CR Kumar knows his girls have to be at their best in the final.
"The players know tomorrow's [Saturday] game will be the final, so they will put in all their energy to win this tie," he said. "We have the mental strength to come out of that defeat [against South Africa in the group stages]. In the last match, we gave a lot of room to South Africa, so we will try to minimise our mistakes. We will try to play compact hockey."
The men will play their final against France on Sunday, and it won't be wrong to admit that by avoiding Poland and Canada, their task has become relatively easier.
The No. 10-ranked Indian men began their unbeaten run by overwhelming Singapore 15-1. The big wins didn't stop there and were repeated against Italy (8-1) and France (6-2) until the first real test against Canada, which India passed 3-1. Their last league game against Poland was another closely fought match, until the hosts scored two goals in the last five minutes to win 4-2.
The hero of India's unbeaten run has undoubtedly been penalty-corner specialist Sandeep Singh, who has so far scored 11 goals with his spine-chilling drag-flicks. Shivendra Singh with six goals and SV Sunil with five are joint second and third respectively on the goal-scorers' list for the qualifiers.
France managed to scrape through with 10 points, pushing Poland (9 points) to third place in the points table. That proved Indian coach Michael Nobbs' prophecy right as he had predicted France to be the tournament's dark horses.
However, if and when India qualify, it will only lay the foundation for bigger success stories. And according to coach Nobbs, he wants to make India the best team in the world.
"It is hard to be your best every time you are in the field and we want to be at the top of every team we play, both physically and psychologically. We want to be the best team in the world," Nobbs said after the match against Poland.
But Olympic qualification will just be a stepping stone for Indian hockey that has to right many wrongs committed since 1980, both on and off the field. Fingers crossed, they will make it.