Following both teams’ mixed fortunes since their respective stellar showings at the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian men’s and women’s hockey teams head into the Asian Games in Hangzhou looking to confirm their berths at Paris next year. Both teams finished ninth in their respective most recent World Cups, with the men especially disappointing in a home World Cup in January 2023. However, changes have been made since, with the new men’s team’s coach Craig Fulton having had a number of games over the last few months, before heading into his most important challenge yet.
India’s history at the Asian Games
The Indian men are three-time gold medalists at the Asian Games, but are only the third-most successful side in the competition, with both Pakistan (8) and Korea Republic (4) having won more gold medals than India. In 2018 at Jakarta, it was heartbreak at the death for India in the semifinal, as Malaysia scored a 59th-minute equalizer, and then beat India in a shootout. The Indians, though, bounced back to win a bronze medal by beating Pakistan 2-1.
The women have won one Asian Games gold medal before, in 1982. They have won a medal in four of the last five Asian Games, with the exception being a fourth-place finish at Incheon in 2014. In 2018, they won a silver medal, having been unable to cross the line in a close final that they lost 2-1 to Japan.
How does the Asian Games work as an Olympic qualifier?
There is one spot at Paris 2024 up for grabs for both the men and women, with only the Asian Games gold medalists directly qualifying for the Olympics. The other teams will play in a qualification tournament in January 2024, to determine if they get to compete at the Olympics next year.
What are India’s chances?
In the Asian Champions Trophy last month in Chennai, which was a dress rehearsal for the Asian Games, India were the best team in the tournament and won it with a thrilling 4-3 win over Malaysia in the final. “I made it clear we wanted to be the no.1 in Asia, so we have to perform now,” Fulton said. With a world ranking of 3, India are the best-ranked Asian side, with Malaysia the next best at 10. So, there is an expectation that they should be standing atop the podium at the end of the Asian Games.
That brings with it its own set of challenges, as India found out at the World Cup, when then coach Graham Reid said that perhaps the players couldn’t handle the pressure of expectation. “It’s all about expectation, [if] you’re expecting something before you’ve done it, that’s what stress is. It’s about how much of the time we can stick to our game plan, and when it doesn’t work, how we can bounce back, and we showed we can do that in the ACT final,” Fulton said.
“We have a realistic goal and an ideal goal, I always talk about that. Ideal goal is any tournament you play in, you want to win. The realistic is depending on how you are ranked, how you’re performing. We are ranked the highest in Asia, we are performing well, so all eyes are on us to win the tournament,” the South African added.
The Indian women are in a group from which they should be able to make the semifinals, with Korea Republic posing the sternest test to them. However, their results in 2023 haven’t been particularly encouraging, with the series in Australia in July especially being a concern to coach Janneke Schopmann in terms of performances.
India’s performance at the Olympics was supposed to be a kickstarter for better things to come, but it hasn’t quite panned out that way, and Schopmann put that down to the team’s ability to handle pressure. “At Tokyo, no one was looking at India. Now everyone especially in Asia is looking at India. So that’s a difference for us. You can say there is no pressure and no nerves, but there always is,” she said.
The Indian coach was also wary of the competition posed at the Asian Games, even though at 7, India are the highest ranked Asian team in the world. “I think China have had a lot of opportunities in the last year. They’ve played over 40 practice games, we’ve done half of that,” Schopmann said. “There are Japan and Korea, who we haven’t seen much of. Malaysia are a little bit of unknown. But I tell the girls that we as a team and as individuals should perform and give a good account of ourselves. We just have to play hockey.”
September 24, 9:45am: India v Uzbekistan; September 26, 6:30am: India v Singapore; September 28, 6:15pm: India v Japan; September 30, 6:15pm: India v Pakistan’ October 2, 1:15pm: India v Bangladesh.
The men’s semifinals and final will be played on October 4 and October 6 respectively.
September 27, 10:15am: India v Singapore; September 29, 4pm: India v Malaysia; October 1, 1:30pm: India v Korea; Republic; October 3, 6:15pm: India v Hong Kong.
The women’s semifinals and final will be played on October 5 and October 7 respectively.
India Men’s Hockey squad
“Yeah, there was some changes made [from the Asian Champions Trophy], but also this was done previously to the ACT, so a lot of players have had opportunities to play and perform, so we think we have a well-balanced squad,” Fulton said of the 18 picked to play in the Asian Games. From the ACT squad, Karthi Selvam, Jugraj Singh and Akashdeep Singh have made way for Abhishek, Sanjay and Lalit Kumar Upadhyay.
Harmanpreet Singh (C), PR Sreejesh (GK), Krishan Bahadur Pathak (GK), Jarmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Sumit, Sanjay, Amit Rohidas, Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Shamsher Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Nilakanta Sharma, Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Abhishek, Sukhjeet Singh
India Women’s Hockey squad
“I think we have a very good group of 33,” Schopmann said, “ever since Tokyo, we have got a lot of depth in our selections. It was hard to pick 18, but I think these 18 are great representatives of the 33. We have a nice blend of young and old.”
Savita Punia (C, GK), Bichu Devi (GK), Deep Grace Ekka, Udita Duhan, Sonika, Neha, Nikki Pradhan, Navneet Kaur, Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Ishika Choudhary, Vaishnavi Vittal Phalke, Sushila Chanu, Sangita Kumari, Salima Tete, Deepika, Monika, Nisha