Saumojyoti S Choudhury
Bhubaneswar: The Indian men's hockey team embarks on a new journey under recently-appointed chief coach Graham Reid as the eight-time champions start its quest for 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualification with the FIH Series Finals which begins here Thursday.
Eight teams from Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America will battle it out for two places in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers scheduled to held in October-November later this year.
Besides top-ranked India, the other participating teams in Pool A are Poland, Russia, and Uzbekistan while Pool B consists of South Africa, Asian Games champions Japan, USA, and Mexico.
Placed fifth in world rankings, India will start the tournament as overwhelming favourites, given the vast gap between the hosts and other teams in terms of quality, skills, and stature in world hockey. South Africa at 16 and Japan at 18 are the next closest sides in the tournament in terms of rankings.
India will open its campaign against minnows Russia and expected to win the encounter by a huge margin but to finish on top the hosts will have to overcome their knock-out jitters as has been the case in the past.
India's best chance to qualify for the Olympics was through the Jakarta Asian Games but they failed to qualify for the final after losing to Malaysia in the semifinals. In this year's Azlan Shah Cup to India failed to claim the title despite being the top side, losing to South Korea in the summit clash.
The FIH Series Finals is India's first step towards qualifying for the Tokyo Games. The tournament will serve as a first real test for Australian Graham Reid, who was appointed as Harendra Singh's successor in April this year following India's dismal World Cup campaign in December last year.
And it remains to be seen how Reid handles the enormous burden of expectations which many of his predecessors like Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass, Michaels Nobbs, etc. failed to handle. A total of 14 teams will play at the FIH Olympic qualifiers, out of which seven teams will qualify for the Tokyo Games.