Incheon, South Korea: India will start their elusive quest for the Asian Games men's hockey gold in a new format of the game when they take on minnows Sri Lanka in their Pool B opener at Incheon on Sunday while the women's team begin their campaign on Monday.
The Asian Games will be the first major international hockey competition to feature the new format where the duration of the game has been reduced from 70 to 60 minutes and from two halves of 35 minutes each to four 15-minute quarters with 40-second time-outs when a penalty corner is awarded and after a goal is scored. (Proud to be India's flag-bearer, says Sardar Singh)
The logic behind additional time-outs for penalty corners and after goals is to ensure 60-minute actual playing time by eliminating the dead time associated with set pieces and also allowing the teams to celebrate after scoring a goal, the International Hockey Federation has reasoned. (India aim to make mark with big medal haul at Incheon)
The added incentive to win the gold is that the winners of both the competitions will earn a direct entry into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, which India failed to utilise when they slipped in the semi finals to Malaysia four years ago in Guangzhou, China. (Teams arrive to 'Gangnam Style' in Incheon)
India, second-best among Asian teams in world rankings at no. 9 behind leaders, four-time winners and tournament hosts South Korea, have been drawn in a group which features arch-rivals and title holders Pakistan and their clash on September 25 is the highlight of the group phase.
Pakistan start their campaign one day early, on Saturday, when they take on Oman and the Indian think-tank will have a way to assess them through this game.
Though India, who have won the gold only twice in the past, are going into the tournament on a sort of high and with a settled combination after winning silver behind world champions Australia at the Commonwealth Games, any encounter with Pakistan, who are a bit rusty after not having played for almost seven months, is going to be a humdinger.
Sardar Singh, who is India's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, will have to be at his inspirational best along with the other senior in the squad, goalkeeper P S Sreejesh, if the team has to go all the way and recapture the gold which the country last clutched in 1998 at Bangkok under Dhanraj Pillay's leadership.
The other two teams in India's group are Oman and China whom they are meeting on September 23 and 27.
India coach Terry Walsh has been upbeat about the team's chances ahead of the Games and feels his boys have a realistic chance of lifting the gold and earn a direct berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"My view is that we are progressing really well. There is a considerable difference in our level of performance from pre-World Cup to post-Commonwealth Games," the coach observed.
Insisting that India and Korea are the teams to beat in the Asian Games, Walsh said they have improved upon their defensive skills post the World Cup earlier this year.
"I think this group of players sincerely believes that if they play to their potential they can beat Malaysia, Korea, China, Pakistan, Japan and win the title," he reasoned.
The trick here is how well Walsh utilizes the extra breaks to keep the players fresh right through the duration of what's going to be an even faster game and how quickly the players adapt to the changed format.
Sreejesh feels that having played the four-quarter game at home in the Hockey India league the Indian players have a slight advantage.
"The new format of the game is actually going to act as an added advantage for us in the field. It will not affect us as we already have the experience of playing in four quarters in the Hockey India League," Sreejesh feels.
Indian men should be able to make it to the semi finals from their group, but what happens thereafter is not certain with their past performance in these Games.
The women, on the other hand, do not start as one of the main contenders for the title, with their ranking being 13th. The 1982 champions take on Thailand in their league opener on Monday which they should win followed by the tough group game against 5th ranked China.
The Chinese are attempting to equal the South Korean record of winning four Asian Games titles on the trot -- having dethroned current Games hosts in 2002 and retaining the hold in 2006 and 2010.
India's other league game against Malaysia is on September 26th which appears to be the crux match for the Neil Hawgood-coached team in the preliminary phase.
Women's team captain Ritu Rani is confident of the team's performance after its month-long camp in India.
"We have worked hard on our shortcomings during a one month camp. We have focused our efforts on a few areas, especially in the area of penalty corners, and have made improvements and are very confident on our strengths. We can reach the final of the Asian Games and confident that the gold medal is in our reach," she said ahead of the tournament.
Hawgood has been more circumspect in his appraisal.
"The preparatory camp in Patiala and New Delhi has gone very well. We've had enough time to put in place strategies for each player. We looked closely at our key problems in converting penalty corners and we stressed on rectifying those areas. We are hopeful of doing well and winning gold at the Asian Games to qualify for 2016 Rio Olympics."