India Hockey: The Greatest Year in the Sport After 1980

The India men’s hockey team and the women’s hockey team had an excellent 2021, with the men’s team breaking a 41-year heartbreak at the Olympics with a stunning performance.

The Indian hockey team enjoyed a glorious year in 2021, with the men winning the bronze and the women's team just coming short. (Image credit: Reuters Twitter)

The year 2021 will forever be remembered as one of the greatest years in the history of Indian hockey. It was a year that saw both the Indian men’s hockey team and the women’s hockey team stage a resurgence. The India women’s hockey team almost broke new ground but was cruelly denied at the Olympics. On the other hand, the India men’s hockey team eliminated a 41-year pain in the Olympics and they went on to win the bronze medal in a titanic tussle.

The coronavirus pandemic had cast a shadow on the Indian hockey team. Several members had tested positive in the first wave of the pandemic. The training and warm-up were all affected due to the global lockdown. It seemed the struggles would continue for Indian hockey. But, in February 2021, there was a ray of hope. The Indian men’s hockey team went on tours to Europe and Argentina. The trip to Argentina, in particular, was important as they were the reigning Olympic champions.

The trip to Argentina gave the Indian men’s team renewed self-belief as they registered important wins against them. They won the FIH Pro League Hockey matches 3-2, and 3-0 against Argentina. At the same time, in other practice games, they won two, drew one, and lost one. After their momentous tour of Argentina, the team went to Europe to play matches against Germany and Great Britain. They stayed unbeaten with two wins and two draws. But, the highlight was a 6-1 thrashing against a strong German team capable of a god show in Tokyo Olympics 2020.

India Men’s Hockey Team start slow, rebound in Tokyo Olympics 2021

The preparation for the Indian team in Argentina, Germany, and Great Britain was the boost that they needed. The coronavirus pandemic had proved to be a great leveler in this regard. No team had the added benefit of extra practice or major tournaments. It all depended on pure skill. But, the odds of India winning a medal seemed to be hard. Belgium and Australia were the superpowers in World Hockey. Getting past them, in addition to banana skins like Germany or Spain would have been a massive challenge.

What transpired in the Tokyo Olympics 2021 was the story of the ultimate resurgence. India was in a tough group, with Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Spain, and Japan. Olympic champions, world champions, and Asian Games gold medalists in one group made it a uphill ride for India.

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1st match: India vs New Zealand (Result: India won 3-2)

From the get-go, this match showed that India was rusty. Combined with the nerves of the Olympics and first-match tensions, India were almost embarrassed. In a see-saw match, it was Harmanpreet Singh’s brace that allowed India to win the match 3-2. But, the New Zealand Blacksticks never gave up for the entire duration of the match. They pushed hard and until the 45th minute, matters were still not settled. But, India’s defense held firm.

2nd match: India vs Australia (Result: India lost 1-7)

Perhaps the ultimate humiliation for the Indian team in Tokyo 2020. Failure to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and other defeats might not have hurt them as badly as this. In a display of ruthlessness and aggression, the Australia men’s hockey team demolished India 7-1. It was like the Mineirazo of India hockey, a tribute to how Brazil felt when they were hammered 1-7 by Germany in front of their home fans. In every quarter, Australia dominated possession and never allowed the Indians any room to maneuver.

3rd match: India vs Spain (Result: India won 3-0)

This was the start of the resurgence of Indian hockey. In a typical ‘Chak de India’ mode, they managed to bounce back from the horror against Australia. Rupinder Pal Singh was in his element as he blasted two goals and gave India a magnificent win that kept them in the contest.

4th match: India vs Argentina (Result: India won 3-1)

For most of the match, it felt that India would struggle to breach the defense of the Argentinian team. The Olympic champions had endured a tough run and needed to win in order to remain in contention. For the first three quarters, nothing happened. At 1-1, it seemed both teams would end up in a stalemate. But, in the last few minutes, India spectacularly turned the match. Goals from Vivek Prasad and Harmanpreet Singh helped India win a crucial match 3-1.

5th match: India vs Japan (Result: India won 5-3)

It was a high-scoring thriller. Japan, the hosts, played aggressive hockey right from the beginning. But, India raised their game to another level altogether. Gurjant Singh was in fine form and he proved to be the difference-maker. The match was topsy-turvy, with Japan and India locked at 3-3 with only a few minutes to go. But, Nilakanata Sharma gave India a vital lead in the 51st minute. Gurjant, who had leveled the match in the 17th minute, struck a vital goal in the 56th minute to break Japanese hearts. Japan had crashed out of the tournament and India made it to the quarterfinals.

Quarterfinals: India vs Great Britain (Result: India won 3-1)

It was yet another clinical show by the Indian team. Dilpreet Singh and Gurjant gave the side a 2-0 lead and although Great Britain put up a fight, it was not enough. Hardik Singh dealt the killer blow and India had reached the semi-final. They were now a match away from securing history.

Semi-finals: India vs Belgium (Result: Belgium won 5-2)

The match started off with break-neck speed. After Belgium opened the scoring, India took the lead thanks to two goals from Harmanpreet and Mandeep Singh. But, the Belgians relentlessly attacked. The pressure on the Indian defense increased and they crumbled. Alexander Hendrickx scored a hat-trick in a phenomenal display of hockey. When John-John Dohmen scored the fifth goal, India’s hopes were extinguished. The loss ended the chance of a sure medal. Now, they had to battle it out for the bronze against a strong German team. Despite winning their last four out of five games against Belgium, in the major tournaments, their luck ran out. In the last Olympic encounter in Rio, India was dumped out in the quarterfinals by Belgium. Prior to Tokyo 2020, they had lost 2-3 in the FIH Pro League match in February 2019.

Bronze medal match: India vs Germany (Result: India won 5-4)

The moment of glory in the most spectacular manner. The match was white-hot from the word go. Goals and aggressive play dominated the match. In 29 minutes, seven goals had been scored with India leading 4-3. When Rupinder scored the fifth goal in the 31st minute, there was tremendous anticipation. But, when Lukas Windfeder scored the fourth goal in the 48th minute, there was tension in the air. Germany came hard at India as the minutes died down.

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In the final few minutes, the legendary status of PR Sreejesh was confirmed. He denied three penalty corners to Germany. With six seconds to go for the end, Germany had another chance to equalize and drag the match into the shootout. But, Germany missed thanks to the brilliance of Sreejesh and India had ended 41 years of pain.

The tears of glory were evident in Tokyo that day. 41 years since they last secured a medal in Moscow, India hockey had seen plenty of pain. Inabilities to win medals from 1984 to 2004 was the culmination of the ultimate humiliation. In 2008, they failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in history. An eight-time gold medal-winning nation was on the brink of ruin. But, slowly from 2016, there was hope.

Now, with Tokyo bronze and the chance to become the Asian Champions Trophy winner, 2021 has been without a doubt a spectacular year for the men. But, for the women, it was a case of so near yet so far. But, they still made a nation of billion people proud.

The India women's hockey team missed out on the medal in Tokyo Olympics 2020.

India women’s hockey team, a case of so near yet so far

For the first time in the history of Indian hockey, the men and the women were tipped to achieve glory in Tokyo. The likes of Rani Rampal, Savita Punia, Vandana Katariya, Gurjit Kaur, and Sharmila Devi all were part of a formidable team. India women’s hockey team had been on an upward curve ever since 2016 when they qualified for the Rio Olympics. They had won the Asia Cup in 2017 but their biggest moment was silver in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

Under the leadership of Rani Rampal, they had started to do well in big tournaments. They won the FIH Series Final in 2019 and reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 FIH Women’s World Cup in London. With the coronavirus pandemic, the Indian women’s hockey team had no time for warm-ups and tournaments. They had to begin at the Tokyo Olympics. India was also in a very tough group, paired with the Netherlands, Germany, and Great Britain. However, like the men, they had a slow start. But, they rebounded to be on the cusp of history, only to suffer heartbreak.

1st match: India vs Netherlands (Result: India lost 1-5)

The tournament started poorly for India. Against a dominant Netherlands team, they simply failed to maintain the momentum. For the first quarter, India was on level terms primarily due to the brilliance of Rani Rampal. But, the discipline of the Dutch players put immense pressure on India. Rampal’s side could not cope and they lost by a big margin. The 5-1 loss was the start of their woes.

2nd match: India vs Germany: Result (India lost 0-2)

Germany and Netherlands are the dominant powers in women’s hockey along with Great Britain. The German defense and efficiency meant that India just could not make any headway. Germany was boosted by goals from Nike Lorenz and Anne Schroder to put India in deep trouble.

Read | Tokyo Olympics 2020: Hockey medal finally in our lifetime, Chak de India

3rd match: India vs Great Britain (Result: India lost 1-4)

The result of this match saw India facing a must-win situation. Hannah Martin scored two quick goals but India were kept in the game thanks to Sharmila Devi. But, the Great Britain side maintained the pressure throughout the game. Lily Owsley and Grace Balsdon ensured that Great Britain had no problems and they came out comfortable winners.

4th match: Ireland vs India (Result: India won 1-0)

This was a match that they had to win. The problem against India was that their goal difference was also big due to heavy losses against the Netherlands and Great Britain. The Irish held firm and defended stoically as India failed to make inroads. With just three minutes to go, it looked like the dream would be over for India. But, Navneet Kaur scored a vital goal in the 57th minute to rejuvenate India. The goal was important as it kept India in contention for a quarterfinal spot. But, they still needed other results going their way. That dependency had slightly reduced.

5th match: South Africa vs India (Result: India won 4-3)

Perhaps, the match that gave India plenty of hope. Vandana Katariya scripted history on this day as she became the first Indian woman player to score an Olympic hat-trick. Katariya’s hat-trick, combined with Neha Goyal’s goal proved to be vital. South Africa never gave up, with Tarryn Glasby, Erin Christie Hunter, and Marizen Marais giving them hope. But, India, thanks to the brilliance of Savita Punia showed their determination and they won the match in grand style to seal their spot in the playoffs.

Quarterfinal: India vs Australia (Result: India won 1-0)

A monumental achievement in the history of Indian hockey. The Australian women’s teams are three-time Olympic gold medalists and two-time World Cup winners. They were also the No.1 ranked team for a very long time. In short, the odds did not favor India. But, in a show of inspiration and total determination, India completely upset the odds. They defended like there was no tomorrow. Savita Punia, the goalkeeper, was like the brick wall who could not be shaken. Penalty corners and aggressive players from Australia were all thwarted by Punia. It was Gurjit Kaur who scored for India in the 22nd minute. After that point, the Indian team defended their territory in grand style to pull off one of the biggest wins in their history. It was a shock that reverberated all over the hockey world.

Semifinal: India vs Argentina (Result: India lost 1-2)

Just like the men, the women’s team had to undergo heartbreak. They were one match away from sealing a medal. The start was brilliant, with Gurjit scoring in the second minute. Argentina, though, came back with tremendous aggression and well-planned moves. Maria Barrianeuvo broke Indian hearts as she scored two goals in the 18th and 37th minutes. India tried desperately hard to break through but they failed. The loss meant that they could still aim for history with a bronze medal win.

Bronze medal playoff: India vs Great Britain (Result: India lost 3-4)

Perhaps the day 1.3 billion Indians cried. It was the saddest day on the field for the Indian hockey team. Ellena Rayer and Sarah Robertson gave Great Britain a 2-0 lead. But, in the third quarter, India was playing like ‘Cornered Tigers’ who refused to give up. Two goals from Gurjit and a goal from Katariya in the space of three minutes saw India take a dramatic 3-2 lead. Hollie Pearne-Webb equalized in the 35th minute and the match was poised on a knife-edge.

However, some crucial errors by the Indian defenders, plus a player being sent off did not bode well for India. Grace Balsdon struck the goal that plunged a dagger of pain on billions of hearts. Great Britain took the lead and with minutes to play, they hung on doggedly. When the hooter rang, tears flooded the Indian team. They were minutes away from the bronze and they blew it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally talked to the Indian team and advised them that they had done the nation proud.

The men’s team ended years of heartbreak by securing the bronze. For the women, they broke new ground and their win against Australia was the biggest highlight. 2022 can only get better for Indian hockey. The key now is sustaining the efforts of Tokyo into the future.

Sportslumo Desk

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