The Indian hockey team is riding on the wings of hope once again. Back in the Olympic line-up after missing out of the Beijing Games in 2008, India are again where they ought to be and the entire country`s best wishes are with our players as they look ahead to the stiff test that the Olympic Games will provide.

India`s performance has shown signs of promise, but a realistic assessment is essential for the boys to look at the challenge ahead. India`s hopes of producing a fine show will depend upon how well the defenders cope with rival strikers and penalty corner specialists.

The Indian strikers always fancy themselves in creating chances upfront, but it is the defenders whose performance will be the key to what the team manages to achieve in the end.

As always, it will be sustainability of the Indian defence coming into focus from the moment the team enters the hockey arena at London`s Olympic Park.

Let us not get overawed by slogans or boastful claims that may tend to convey that the Indian team is in the hunt for a gold medal. Where we stand at the moment, every small success is welcome.

There is a tough road ahead for the Indian team as it strives to regain some of the lost prestige of Indian hockey. Success never comes easily. Having played in three Olympic Games, I consider myself competent to talk about the challenge ahead.

When the Indian team`s defence comes under pressure, its sustainability becomes critical to the end result. The situation is going to be no different. The pressure will be acute and it will be a test of the team`s mettle.

Looking back at the draw, the pattern indicates that India tends to get a stiff opening match at the Olympics. The situation will be no different this time as one of the strongest European teams, The Netherlands will open the Olympic campaign against India on July 30.

The Netherlands may not be the same force they once were, but the Dutch are always a formidable opposition. One must also not forget that India`s international ranking is not something we can boast of in the hockey circles.

The Netherlands have, in recent years, not been able to reproduce their best, which was evident in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics and yet their strikers tend to produce dazzling stickwork.

The opening outings tend to provide an indication of where teams are headed. During my Olympic days, it was the opening match against Germany that delivered a big blow to us in 1992, while four years later we missed qualifying for the semifinals essentially due to the shock defeat we suffered in the opening outing against Argentina.

After that, it was a tough climb and we just fell short of securing entry into the semifinal. A spot in the semifinal has continued to remain elusive for India.

India has not just failed to win a medal since clinching men`s hockey gold at the 1980 Olympic Games, but it has not secured passage to the semifinals in seven Olympics thereafter. That, of course, included the 2008 Olympic Games where India was not even in the starting lineup of nations.

Everyone connected to sport in India is hoping for a good show from our hockey team. For that to materialise, the Indian team needs to produce its finest display against the Dutch team, which can set us up nicely in the Olympic hockey competition.

There are no easy opponents these days. Look at who we have in our group. Defending Olympic champions Germany and The Netherlands are both multiple time Olympic gold medallists, while New Zealand and South Korea are equally strong.

Belgium is the only team India could trouble, but the way they rallied from a two-goal deficit to draw parity in the dying minutes underscored their newly found confidence.

A medal of course will be wonderful, but we must be realistic.

(Agencies)

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