London: Mention Olympics to an Indian, and he will say, "Hockey". That's the kind of association Indian hockey enjoyed with the Olympics - largely before 1980, when the golden run of India's National game ended at eight yellow metals.
For the last 32 years, India has been trying to revive its hockey; and on Monday another campaign in that series of revival attempts will be launched as India take on Netherlands in their opening game of London Olympics 2012.
Looking for inspiration, there's a piece of Indian history attached to London: it's the place where an independent India registered it's first success story in sports - an Olympic gold in hockey, fourth in a row since 1928. But will history repeat itself? Captain Bharat Chetri feels so.
"We want to produce a good display. We are eager to show that the London connection with Indian hockey is not just symbolic," Chetri said on the eve of India's first match.
India (10th) are only better-ranked than Belgium (11th) in Group B and up against European powerhouses Germany and Netherlands in London. Certainly, Indian hockey's path to its first semi-final appearance at the Games since 1980 - when they won gold in a round-robin format - is fraught with danger.
The Dutch - back-to-back winners in 1996 and 2000 - enjoy a world ranking of No. 3, but it's their aggressive, unrelenting approach that makes them one of the favourites for gold in London - but behind World No. 1 Australia and defending Olympic champions Germany.
Having finished fourth at Beijing in 2008, the Dutch will not be aiming for anything less than the podium, which is what they achieved at the World Cup in 2010 (bronze) and the Champions Trophy (bronze) last year. If anything, they would want to better it in London.
Veteran Dutch striker Teun de Nooijer will be featuring in his fifth Olympics with an experience of over 600 caps and 200 goals in international hockey. Those are ample statistics to suggest that he can put Indian defence under the pump even at the age of 36.
But India, who are back in Olympics after eight years following their failure to qualify in 2008, have done well under their new Australian coach Michael Nobbs who led the team to top the Olympic qualifiers after winning the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy in September last year - where they beat archrivals Pakistan.
But hockey in India has seen a sea change in the last six months. Veterans like Rajpal Singh and Arjun Hallappa were shown the door and youngsters like SV Sunil and SK Uthappa checked in on a welcome note. And though Sandeep Singh's drag-flicks on penalty corners remain chief suppliers of goals for India, the striking trio of Shivender Singh in the middle, Tushar Khandker on the left and SV Sunil on the right can tie any defence into knots.
Besides his lethal flicks on PCs, focus will also be on the improvement Sandeep had promised to bring in his defensive game at the back. He will hope to build an impregnable wall with VR Raghunath.
But the lynchpins for India remain Ignace Tirkey in the defence and playmaker Sardar Singh in the middle. Even coach Nobbs had admitted that those two are his most important players and a must on the field in the last 10 minutes of each half. "We need Ignace to play the last ten minutes of each half as well as Sardar as they are the stabilising influence," the India coach had said during the team's tour of France and Spain preceding the London Games.
Talking about the game against Netherlands on Monday, Nobbs said the "tough grind" leading up to the Games holds the team in good stead. "We have gone through the tough grind in the run-up to the Olympic Games, and the boys have worked hard. The Dutch are a good side, but the Indians are keen to put their own game on display. We must learn not to give them any leeway. What will matter is how well this Indian team plays, and they have the potential to match the top teams if they are able to play to their ability.”
Other than Netherlands, the presence of defending Olympic champions Germany makes Pool B much tougher for India. So to reach the semi-finals, it's almost mandatory for India empty the barrel of at least one of those top two guns. But it's not going to be easy for India, with 14 players of the 16-member squad making their Olympic debut. Only Ignace Tirkey and Sandeep Singh played at Athens in 2004.
Besides the Dutch and the Germans, India will fight it out against New Zealand, South Korea and Belgium in Pool B.
July 30: NED v IND 2030 IST
Aug 1: NZ v IND 1815 IST
Aug 3: GER v IND 1815 IST
Aug 5: IND v KOR 1815 IST
Aug 7: IND v BEL 2030 IST