After being at the receiving end last year when India failed even to reach the Asian Games semi-finals and finished at the bottom in the World Cup, 2007 saw the team picking itself up under a new coach with three podium finishes, including a grand win in the Asia Cup.
The 2006 performance led to despondency and pessimism that would take a while to dissipate. Despite the fairly strong showing in 2007, there are still doubts whether the Indian team would be able to hold its own against the European and Australian teams.
New coach Joaquim Carvalho, who replaced Vasudevan Baskaran in April, has so far done a fine job of getting the players together as a strong, tight unit. The three consecutive podium finishes this season has injected a renewed sense of hope that Indian hockey would yet rise from the ashes of 2006.
"We do have the potential, but then everything takes time. You cannot perform miracles overnight. So, you got to be patient and understanding. Our target is of course to qualify for the Olympics next year and all our efforts are focused on this task," said Carvalho as he looked back on the year gone by.
The high point of India's performance was no doubt the Asia Cup in Chennai. True, the opposition, by and large, was rather mediocre. However, in the final, against the higher ranked South Korea who had finished fourth in the 2006 World Cup, the Indians struck a purple patch to win 7-2.
Carvalho pointed out that the win against South Korea was a huge boost for the team's morale. "Honestly, I did not expect us to win by such a big margin, but then given the talent and potential we have, the victory itself did not come as a huge surprise for me, though the margin did," he said.
The Indians had begun the season with a third place finish in the eight-nation Sultan Azlan Shah Cup at Ipoh, Malaysia, in May. Wins against Argentina (2-0) and South Korea (1-0) underlined the potential of the Indian team. In fact, India could have fared even better with a place in the final, but for a shock defeat to Malaysia in the semi-finals.
At Antwerp in the Champions Challenge - a competition to qualify for the Champions Trophy - the Indians showed plenty of promise, beating England twice to finish third. The only defeats were to New Zealand and Argentina, matches that India dominated but failed to convert their superiority into victory.
On the Antwerp campaign, Carvalho said: "We lost an excellent opportunity to qualify for the Champions Trophy. However, like I have been saying all along, our focus is on the Olympic qualifier next year (March 1-9) in Santiago. I view all other outings as our preparations for the Chile competition. We had our chances in Antwerp and honestly I wouldn't have been surprised had we even won the tournament. Overall, I was quite happy at our performance though agreed, it could have been much better."
There are still plenty of grey areas that the Indians need to work on, not the least penalty corner conversions. In the three tournaments, India converted only 17 of 80 penalty corners. Sandeep Singh and V. Raghunath were given opportunities to develop as drag-flick specialists, but neither can be yet bracketed among the top shooters. Worse, Sandeep appears to be out of the frame on disciplinary grounds.
"We do have a couple of young players whom we are grooming in penalty corner conversions. This will take time, but I feel we are progressing in the right direction. Raghunath needs some more exposure and experience, but he has the potential to become a top player in this department," Carvalho said.
As for 2008, much will hinge on India's performance in Santiago. The team is already under pressure to qualify for the Olympics. Fortunately, their only real threat in Chile is England/Great Britain.
Carvalho is confident of qualifying. "Obviously, Olympics is the biggest competition and we would like to be there. I have already planned several competitions for the team ahead of the Olympics whether we qualify or not. The important thing here is, besides making it to Beijing, we have to also look beyond the Olympics."
Quite the most noticeable improvement in the Indian team is discipline and the absence of region-based lobbying that in the past had caused division in the ranks.
The other big positive for the Indian team has been the sharpness in the forward line where the much-maligned Prabhjot Singh on the left wing has rediscovered his form. In the midfield, Sardara Singh, undoubtedly the most talented of the lot, has been a revelation with his darting runs and vision in passing the ball.
Thus, overall, the Indian team holds out much promise for the coming year and it is to be hoped that they will deliver in 2008.