Eleven Olympic medals in all, eight gold, unbeaten from 1928 to 1956, a podium finish until 1972 and back in possession of the gold in 1980. A fairytale!
Now hear about the nightmare. Medal-less since 1980, not even part of the Beijing Games in 2008 and once again set to experience the jitters of uncertainty in a qualification tournament. Indian hockey's fall from grace defies logic, but it's time to right the wrongs.
There is no worse feeling for a sportsperson than to sit and watch what he could have competed in. The Indian hockey team's plight was the same when they watched the Beijing Olympics unfold in 2008 after losing the qualification final to Great Britain. What made the occasion ironic was the sport that had earned the maximum number of Olympic medals for India was painfully not part of the nation's best ever campaign – three medals in three different sports, including the first ever individual gold won by shooter Abhinav Bindra.
A silver medal at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games, lifting the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy and an appearance in the final of Champions Challenge-I are some of the highlights of the four years since the failure to touch down in Beijing. But the period wasn't without some off-field embarrassments.
The long-standing slug-fest between Hockey India and the Indian Hockey Federation – which still persists – dented the game's image beyond repairs. It turned out to be hara-kiri for the game as the FIH snatched the Champions Trophy hosting from India after even the Sports Ministry failed to end the impasse.
It also led to players losing focus, two of whom – Sardar Singh and Sandeep Singh – were banned for two years after they left the national camp to attend a promotional event for the World Series Hockey (WSH). However, sanity prevailed after an apology from the star duo and the ban was revoked.
The qualification tourney for the 2008 Games was in Santiago, Chile. This one, for London 2012, is at the heart of India – New Delhi. Naturally, the team – captained by goalkeeper Bharat Chetri with star centre-half Sardar as his deputy – looks upbeat under the new coach Michael Nobbs, who handled team selection, build-up and the controversies surrounding both quite efficiently. Perhaps that signifies Nobbs' preference to keep a low-profile, unlike his predecessor Jose Brasa who made the fatal error of acting as a headmaster.
The build-up for India has been pretty satisfactory as well – a 4-1 series win over the visiting South African team, which India took as selection trials, testing close to 40 players before announcing the final squad.
Going by Nobbs' words after the series against South Africa, he seems to have his combinations in place to ensure India sail through to London unless struck by a 'stupid' catastrophe. "[If India miss out], it won't be from lack of trying. It just won't be that," he said. "It would be just bloody unlucky or something goes stupidly wrong somewhere. But it would certainly not be from lack of effort or trying."
Rankings, skill and talent espouse Nobbs' claims. India, ranked No. 10, emerge as clear favourites when compared to rivals Canada (14), France (18), Poland (19), Italy (28) and Singapore (41), who got a lucky entry after USA pulled out in the eleventh hour.
Not just the rankings, but the attacking style of Indian hockey is also grades higher than any of its five rivals in the February 18-26 tournament.
The stick-work of old guards Tushar Khandekar, Ignace Tirkey and Sardar combined with lethal drag-flicks of Sandeep and VR Raghunath and fresh legs of Yuvraj Walmiki, Sarvanjit Singh, SV Sunil and SK Uthappa gives India a distinct edge against much feeble opponents; however, they can't afford to drop guard or else the ghost of 2008 may return to haunt them. The immediate goal should be to get the jitters out of the way and secure an Olympic berth for Indian hockey.
Not to forget the tournament will also see Indian women fighting for an Olympics qualification. Unlike the men, though, their task is much arduous despite some good practice while they swept Azerbaijan in the four-Test series. South Africa are ranked 12, the highest among the lot that includes Italy (19), Canada (20), Ukraine (26) and Poland (28), other than the hosts who are a rung lower than the South Africans at 13.
But the one big question is whether Indians will throng the 20,000-capacity Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium to breathe life into their national game that needs resuscitative measures. The denominations of Rs.300 and Rs.500 tickets for the league stages are hardly inviting, especially considering the much weaker opposition the men's team will face.
To end on a nostalgic note, there's been a clamour for Bharat Ratna to be bestowed upon hockey maestro Dhyan Chand, but believe me, the wizard would have given up anything and everything to watch his team play the Olympics again. Good luck India!