New Delhi: Indian hockey has fallen on hard times but captain Bharat Chetri believes it is his destiny to lead the team to the London Olympics and snatch a new generation of players away from cricket`s grasp.
India are the most successful hockey nation in Olympic history but collected the last of their eight gold medals in 1980. The game has been in steady decline in recent years and hit a nadir when India failed to qualify for the Beijing Games.
Chetri told Reuters that for India`s national sport to begin creeping out from cricket`s massive shadow they had to grab their place in London with a strong showing at the Olympic qualifier beginning in Delhi on Saturday.
"We have not left anything to chance," Chetri said in an interview. "We worked hard, addressed every issue and are on the right track."
India will be up against France, Canada, Italy, Poland and Singapore in the February 18-26 qualifier, which will be played at a stadium named after hockey wizard Dhyan Chand.
Chetri was reluctant to ponder the reason behind India`s spectacular decline in hockey but said qualifying for London could be the first step towards winning back some of the youngsters heading for the nearest cricket academy.
"There are a number of reasons (for the decline) but if the Indian team keeps doing well, parents too will encourage kids to play hockey. After all, it`s our national game," Chetri added.
ACCIDENTAL HOCKEY PLAYER
The 30-year-old goalkeeper from the state of West Bengal considers himself an `accidental` hockey player and believes destiny dragged him kicking and screaming into the game.
Mad about soccer from a young age, often at the expense of his studies, Chetri still remembers the day his parents dragged him onto a train and sent him to stay with his relatives in the neighbouring state of Bihar.
"I was crying but they would not listen. Nor would they let me go back," said Chetri, adding that his sporting options in Bihar were severely limited.
"There was just hockey. That`s how hockey came into my life and today I`m leading the Indian team.
"I do believe in destiny. You go where your destiny takes you. Of course it cannot happen without hard work.
"When I look back to the day when my parents sent me away, I realise they had my best interests in mind. From that day and now where I stand, it`s all destiny and my hard work."
Chetri said the team, under Australian coach Michael Nobbs, had prepared in the best possible way.
Nobbs gathered a string of former India players, notably Dilip Tirkey, a redoubtable defender in his day, and short-corner specialist Jugraj Singh, to shore up their weakness and help them play to their strengths.
"Dilip has done an excellent job in sorting out the issues in our defence line, while Jugraj worked hard with our three drag-flick specialists," Chetri said.
"We now have three penalty corner experts (Sandeep Singh, V. Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh), which is a luxury no other international team has. We have the best drag-flickers in the world and converting short corners should not be a problem.
"France and Canada would probably be tougher opponents but we will not underestimate other teams. We prepared really hard for this tournament and winning it is our immediate target."