It will not be a cakewalk for Indians

Anything less than gold would be seen as a disaster for men; difficult but not impossible for women

It wouldn’t be a cakewalk for the Indian hockey teams at the Asian Games but at least for the men, anything less than gold at the 2018 edition would be seen as a disaster.

For the women, though, it would be a fight to finish on top — difficult but not impossible.

Hockey at the Asian Games has largely been the domain of a handful of nations — India and Pakistan, with Korea and occasionally Malaysia among the men. Among the women, it has been a China-Korea battle with India and Japan making up the top four. The orders might change but the teams at the top are expected to remain the same this time as well.

The Indian men are the highest ranked Asian side in the world at fifth, and the only one in top-10. They go into the competition as defending champions, fresh off a practice series win against New Zealand and Korea and second consecutive silver at the Champions Trophy. The team has a new coach who is an old hand at managing most of the boys and would be desperate to become the first team to seal an Olympic spot.

The mix of youth and experience, after a couple of disappointing outings that saw too much emphasis on young legs, has worked well.

The team appears balanced though it would be ruing the absence of Ramandeep Singh upfront due to injuries. The one player who will be under the spotlight is Sardar Singh, who had a mixed outing at the Champions Trophy. His form could well be the difference between India returning with gold, or not.

The format makes it easier unless the team implodes. Clubbed with Korea and Japan in Pool A, along with Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, India needs to finish in the top-two to get into the semifinal. While Korea is expected to be the other team to progress past the group stage, Japan as host for Tokyo 2020 wouldn’t have to worry about qualifying though the Japanese would like to stake claim on merit.

From the other pool, Malaysia and Pakistan are favourites to advance.

Test of nerves

It wouldn’t be as easy for the women. Clubbed with Korea, Thailand, host Indonesia and Kazakhstan, the Indian girls should reach the semifinals but beyond that, it would be a test of nerves and determination.

The recent quarterfinal finish at the World Cup may have been disappointing but it showed a structured team that wouldn’t give up till the end.

On paper, the Indian women have as much chance as any of the other three top contenders — China, Japan and Korea. India has beaten them all in the last few outings, including the Asia Cup last year, and would be keen to continue. The only areas of concern would be penalty corners and a strike-force that appears to have lost some of its sharpness — pushing Vandana Katariya ahead and allowing her and Lalremsiami to play more freely may be the simplest solution to the latter.

The new Pro League starts in 2019 and would be a qualifying route for the Olympics. With India not being part of it and the complex process itself stretching over two years, the team wouldn’t want to get into working out the permutations. Winning the Asiad would be the easiest way to avoid that.

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