World Cup hockey: Optimistic India begin campaign against South Africa

World Cup hockey: Optimistic India begin campaign against South Africa
Indian players during a practice session at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday. IANS
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Bhubaneswar: Armed with a sense of togetherness, self-belief and a strong crowd backing them every moment, India will seek to end 43 years of wait when they begin the Hockey World Cup campaign against South Africa at the Kalinga Stadium
here on Wednesday.

Eight-time Olympic champions India's lone World Cup triumph came way back in 1975 when Ajit Pal Singh and his men's created history.

Since then India have failed to match the standards of the Europeans -- Netherlands, Germany -- and Australia, who have been ruling the game for over four decades now.

In the last 10 editions since its lone title in 1975, India's best performance was a fifth-place finish at the 1982 edition in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Now, the world ranked fifth Indians would be eager to recreate the magic by reaching the semifinals, and possibly a podium finish.

That is though easier said than done as besides tackling powerhouses like two-time defending champions Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and Olympic champions Argentina, the Indians will be under pressure to live up to the expectations of millions of fans.

The last time India played a World Cup at home, in 2010 in New Delhi, it finished a lowly eighth.

Pressure on Harendra Singh

For chief coach Harendra Singh, who has come under the scanner after India's failure to defend its Asian Games gold earlier this year, the tournament is a do-or-die one and a failure is likely to cost him his job.

Harendra would be hoping to recreate the magic of two years ago when he guided the junior Indian team to the World Cup title in Lucknow.

To achieve his goal, Harendra has drafted in seven of 18 junior World Cup winners in the senior team alongside senior pros like skipper Manpreet Singh, goalkeeper P R Sreejesh, Akashdeep Singh and the ever-reliable Birendra Lakra.

The Indian team is a mixture of youth and experience with seven of the 18 featuring in the last World Cup. The squad also has youthful exuberance in 19-year-old striker Dilpreet Singh and debutant Hardik Singh.

But two notable absentees from the squad are dragflicker Rupinder Pal Singh, who has been dropped, and striker S V Sunil, who is unfit.

In the 16-nation tournament India are placed alongside South Africa, Belgium and Canada in Group C.

Barring world No. 3 Belgium, India are expected to win hands down against world No. 15 South Africa and world No. 11 Canada.

The match against Belgium is India's big test in the pool stages and a win against the Red Lions is a must for the hosts to avoid the cross-overs and qualify directly for the quarterfinals.

After South Africa, India's opponents are Belgium on December 2 and Canada on December 8.

It is only the second World Cup after 2002 to feature 16 teams. From four pools of four teams each, the toppers will directly qualify for the quarterfinals while the second and third placed sides will have to play four cross-over matches to earn their places in the last-eight round.

Just like all big-ticket hockey events, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany will once again start favourites to lift the title.

The Kookaburras, in fact, will be vying to create history by becoming the first team to win the trophy for the third time in a row.

In the other match of the opening day, Belgium will take on Canada. 

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