England first up as India ready to change history | Hockey – SportsMediaz

A little less than a year back, the India women’s hockey team travelled to the Tokyo Olympics without a game in four-and-a-half months. Despite the lack of matches, largely due to the pandemic, the Rani Rampal-led team finished an unprecedented fourth.

They start World Cup on Sunday after six months of intense competition against the best in the world and after winning bronze in the Asia Cup and Pro League.

“Last time (Olympics) there was not much preparation but this time every team is well prepared and will give a good fight. We got a good opportunity to play against top teams in the Pro League which has boosted our skills and confidence,” said India midfielder Sonika, who returns to the squad after two years.

History is not on India’s side. The world’s No. 8 team has qualified for half of the 14 editions, their best coming in the first edition in 1974 when they finished fourth. India failed to qualify in 2014 and were eighth out of 16 teams in 2018.

But things changed after Tokyo and India will be no pushovers in Terrassa and Amstelveen—the two cities hosting the quadrennial event. Led by Savita Punia, they have notched up important wins against higher-ranked teams in the Pro League and were ranked No. 6 in May.

Janneke Schopman, India chief coach, has tried out various combinations during the four-month Pro League, especially in attack which will miss striker Rampal who is injured.

India will face England in the opener. It was Great Britain who broke Indian hearts when they won the bronze medal playoff 4-3 at Tokyo’s Oi Hockey Stadium. Most players from that squad were from England and will be available for this pool B match.

“We would be focused on our performance. England and India have faced off in some close encounters and undoubtedly, a rivalry has developed over the past 3-4 years,” said goalkeeper Punia. “Some of our players want to challenge their goalkeeper Maddie Hinge, who has been quite exceptional. They also have some very experienced players like Laura Unsworth, Giselle Ansley, their captain Hollie Pearne-Webb and Lily Owsley.”

In the previous edition too in London, India had opened against England, the match ending 1-1. This year, India were scheduled to face England in a double-header in Bhubaneswar but the matches were cancelled. “Yes, a match against them would have been ideal in the lead up to the World Cup but we can’t be too bothered about what has happened. The aim for us now is to get a good start and the team is 100 per cent ready,” said Punia.

After England, India will take on world No. 13 China on July 5 followed by world No. 9 New Zealand on July 7. “Each match will be crucial. The most important aspect for us is to be consistent in every single quarter and be the best we can without worrying too much about the opponent. This is something we have learnt over the years and it has really worked for us,” said experienced India forward Vandana Katariya, who scored a hattrick in Tokyo.

“We have played practice matches against Chile and Ireland. Both were very good as we were able to practice some tactical moves and get used to the field. It will be a very interesting and intense World Cup and I anticipate matches to be quite close as almost 5-6 teams are on a par with each other.”

The group toppers qualify directly to the quarter-finals. The second and third teams will play the crossovers against countries that finish in same positions from other groups with the winning team progressing to the last eight.

“All are good teams. We are currently focussed on our first match against England. We will devise our strategies as we progress through the tournament,” added Sonika.

India’s group games will be at the Wagener Stadium in Amstelveen which hosted the men’s 1973 World Cup where Netherlands beat India 2-2 (4-2) via penalties in the final.

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