In a country obsessed with cricket, the focus shifts to the Indian hockey team every Olympics. It's no different this time around with the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games slated to begin in the Japanese capital on July 23. India have won the men's hockey gold a record eight times, with the last one coming in a depleted field in Moscow 1980. After that it has been a story of disappointment with the national team failing to make it to the semifinals even once. The team even suffered the ignominy of not qualifying for the quadrennial showpiece in Beijing 2008.
The Indians under Australian coach Graham Reid are currently ranked fifth in the world. Keralite goalkeeper P R Sreejesh will be guarding the Indian goal in Tokyo. It's the third Olympics for the 33-year-old, who has been one of India’s standout performers for more than a decade.
Sreejesh spoke to Onmanorama over the phone from Bengaluru, where the Indian players are fine-tuning their skills.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the team's Olympic preparations. How tough has been the journey?
It's been both an advantage and a disadvantage. The players have been together for a long time and we know our strengths and weaknesses inside out. Also, the other teams don't have the luxury of knowing the minute details of our style since we've played very few international matches, of late. On the other hand, we could watch and analyse the tactics of the teams, who competed in the European Championships recently. But having said that the lack of international exposure is a concern.
India have been grouped alongside No.1 ranked Australia and defending champions Argentina among others...
Coming to our group, we had beaten the Argentinians in April and we've traditionally done well against the Japanese. I feel Australia, Spain and New Zealand will pose us tougher challenges.
Last time in Rio, a draw against a relatively weak Canada resulted in India meeting Belgium in the quarterfinals...
There are no easy games in Olympics. It's true had we won against Canada, our quarterfinal opponents would have been different. But I would like to believe that we have learnt a lesson and it will stand us in good stead this time.
India enjoy a great record in Olympic hockey. Does it bring more pressure on the team?
We have a great record in the Olympics and we all are proud of it. But what matters is the present. We will only put further pressure on us if we think of past records. Our first objective is to make sure we qualify for the quarterfinals. After that, it's do or die and it all depends on how well you play on the day.
How important is the first few matches?
The early games are important because if you start off well you have the momentum on your side and also the pressure is less. But at the same time, in a tournament like Olympics, each game is vital. Our aim is to earn as many points as possible and qualify for the knockout phase with a higher position from our group.
How do you rate head coach Graham Reid?
Reid has a wealth of experience both as a player and coach. He represented Australia in the Olympics and has also coached them in the Games. His big plus is that he has nicely blended the Australian and Indian styles.
The Indian squad features nine Olympic debutants...
The majority of these players have been part of the national squad for a few years. So they're experienced. It will be humid in Tokyo and fresh legs will be an added advantage for us.