New Delhi: India begin their journey for a place in the 2014 World Cup when its men and women teams get on the pitch at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium here against their five opponents in the FIH Hockey World League (HWL) from February 18 to 24.
Six men and and an equal number of women teams will slog it out in Round 2 of the HWL, from where the winners of the men's competition and top two finishers in the women's draw of the round-robin format progress to the next round. By virtue of being ranked between No. 9 and 16, both the Indian men and women teams got a first-round bye.
There is a possibility that the second-placed men's team also makes it to Round 3, but that will be decided based on the rankings once all the Round 2 events finish.
Ranked No. 11, the Sardar Singh-led Indian men begin their campaign against the lowly Fiji team, ranked 70th, on Monday before locking horns with Oman (36th), Ireland (15th), China (18th) and Bangladesh (40th). As the rankings suggest, India are dominating favourites but can expect some resistance by the Irish and the Chinese teams. But the Fijians are determined to give it their all against the eight-time Olympic champions.
"In technique, India is far better than us but we'll play attacking hockey like them," Hector Rockee, who coaches the Fiji men's team, said at the pre-match press conference on Sunday. "We've never seen someone like Sardar Singh, and [VR] Raghunath is lethal with his drag-flicks. We will keep a watchful eye on them," Rockee added.
This is possibly the biggest stage Fijians have every competed in besides playing in the Pacific Oceania zone. "Thanks to FIH Hockey World League, we are playing here. Otherwise, we were playing under the shadow of Australia and New Zealand," the Fiji coach said.
Except China and Ireland, India are expected to be heads and heels above the other opponents. But a loss against teams you are expected to hammer can hurt the favourites badly in such tournaments. That's where India need to be careful and Sardar agreed. "A loss can cost us a lot. Fiji team is young and strong but we will play at our level," the India skipper said.
Indian men's team coach Michael Nobbs said the format keeps you on your toes as only one team from here progresses to the semi-finals (Round 3). "This is a new format and we are understanding it. China and Ireland are also very strong, hard-working teams," Nobbs said suggesting which teams can be competition for India.
Before their men counterparts, Indian women will turn up on the astro turf, but as second favourites. Japan, ranked 9th, begin the tournament as the frontrunners to finish on top of the table, followed by India (12th). But Russia (20th) and Malaysia (22nd) won't be easy to get past, though the same can't be said about Kazakhstan (33) and Fiji (59th).
The Ritu Rani-led Indian women will face Kazakhstan in their first match on Monday before they take on Malaysia and Fiji, followed by their toughest assignments against Japan and Russia. But Rani said the team is ready for any challenge. "The team is fit, ready and very energetic for this tournament. We will take it match by match and make our strategies accordingly."