New Delhi: Indian field hockey teams found success in past decades with deft stick work, nimble feet and artistic forays. Now, in the modern era of fast synthetic turfs, they have been reduced to "also rans."
Field hockey, widely considered India's national game, is in desperate need of a standout performance that fans hope will come at this year's Olympic Games.
But to get to London, the men's team must first qualify from an ongoing tournament in New Delhi, which fans hope will not end like the disastrous 2-0 loss to Britain in the final the Beijing 2008 qualifying competition in Chile four years ago that deprived India of an Olympic berth for the first time.
India has a rich field hockey tradition with eight Olympic gold medals, but the decline in standards since the advent of artificial surfaces in the 1970s has left it lagging far behind the national obsession of cricket.
Indian hockey teams are regularly overpowered by the likes of Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and South Korea due to a lack of power and stamina, and often given up early advantages even to less fancied teams.
India captain Bharat Chhetri acknowledges that a lack of competitiveness has been an issue in recent years.
"We're addressing problems that we face toward the end of games," Chhetri told reporters ahead of the Delhi qualifiers. "We will go into the game with the idea of attacking and setting up the game early, so that we do not have much to do toward the end.
"We'll not only qualify for the Olympics but also do well there," he said.
Australian Michael Nobbs, who took over from Spaniard Jose Brasa as India's national coach, says the team needs stronger players and must develop the ruthlessness of Australia to do well at the global level.
"We're working toward getting well-built and physically fit players in the team," Nobbs said in New Delhi as India prepared for the qualifiers. "Today Australians are successful because they also have some physically fit players in the team. Such players give you lot of advantages. They can quickly recover the ball after losing it and can also break into any attack and defense with ease."
Organizers of an upcoming club-based World Series Hockey, that does not enjoy the sanction of world body FIH, are also banking on India winning the qualifications final on Feb. 26 to provide a good promotion for their own controversial tournament that starts three days later.
The game has been in the news for all the wrong reasons since the 2010 World Cup, organized by Hockey India, which runs the game in the country.
The body organizing the WSH is the original national body - Indian Hockey Federation - which was de-registered several years ago by the FIH and the Indian Olympic Association over corruption charges and the inability to unify the men's and women's bodies.
In such a scenario, will a failure to qualify for the Olympic Games sound the death knell for the game?
"I do not subscribe to the view that Indian hockey will die if we fail to qualify for the Olympics yet again," Brasa wrote in a column in The Times of India. "I think people in India really love their national team."
India won six consecutive Olympic gold medals starting from 1928 in Amsterdam, but slumped in the world rankings since winning the 1975 World Cup and clinched the last of its eight Olympic gold medals at the boycott-marred 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Indian teams have shown glimpses of their former glory, but have failed to qualify for the semifinals of eight successive World Cups and six consecutive Olympic Games before altogether missing out on reaching Beijing.