Bhubaneswar: Armed with a sense of togetherness, self- belief and a strong crowd backing them every moment, India will seek to end 43 years of hurt when they begin the Hockey World Cup campaign against South Africa here on Wednesday.
The hosts' Pool C encounter at the Kalinga Stadium will be the showpiece event's second game. Eight-time Olympic champions India's only glory at the World Cup came way back in 1975 when Ajit Pal Singh and his men's created history for the past masters of the game.
Since then India has failed to match the standards of the Europeans -- Netherlands, Germany -- and Australia, who have been ruling the game for over four decades now. In the last 10 editions since its maiden triumph in 1975, India's best performance was a fifth-place finish at the 1982 edition in Mumbai (then Bombay).
Now, the world ranked fifth Indians would be eager to recreate the magic by reaching the semifinals, and possibly a podium finish. That is though easier said than done as besides tackling powerhouses like two-time defending champions Australia, Netherlands, Germany and Olympic champions Argentina, the Indians will be under pressure to live up to the expectations of millions of fans.
The last time India played a World Cup at home, in 2010 in New Delhi, it finished a lowly eighth and going by records, the host nation has never fared well in the tournament. All the nine countries to host a World Cup till date have finished eighth or above but Harendra Singh's men would be hoping to rewrite that in front of home fans.
For chief coach Harendra Singh, who has come under the scanner after India's failure to defend it's Asian Games title earlier this year, the tournament is a do-or-die one and a failure is sure to cost him his job. Harendra would be hoping to recreate the magic of two years ago when he guided the junior Indian team to the World Cup title in Lucknow.
To achieve his goal, Harendra has drafted in seven of 18 junior World Cup winners in the senior team alongside senior pros like skipper Manpreet Singh, PR Sreejesh, Akashdeep Singh and the ever-reliable Birendra Lakra.
The Indian team for the World Cup is a mixture of youth and experience with seven of the 18 features in the last World Cup. The squad also has youthful exuberance in 19-year-old striker Dilpreet Singh and debutant Hardik Singh.
But two notable absentees from the squad are drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh, who has been dropped and striker SV Sunil, who is unfit.
In the 16-nation tournament, India is placed alongside South Africa, Belgium and Canada in their group. Barring world no. 3 Belgium, India are expected to win hands down against world no. 15 South Africa and world no. 11 Canada.
The match against Belgium is India's big test in the pool stages and a win against the Red Lions is a must for the hosts to avoid the cross-overs and qualify directly for the quarterfinals. After South Africa, India's opponents are Belgium on December 2 and Canada on December 8.
It is only the second World Cup after 2002 to feature 16 teams. From four pools of four teams each, the toppers will directly qualify for the quarterfinals while the second and third-placed sides will have to play four cross-over matches to earn their places in the last-eight round. Just like all big-ticket hockey events, Australia, Netherlands and Germany will once again start favourites to lift the title.
The Kookaburras, in fact, will be vying to create history by becoming the first team to win the trophy for the third time in a row.
In the other match of the opening day, Belgium will take on Canada....